Part 'Cabin in the Woods,' part 'Wicker Man' (1973, not 2006), 'Nothing Left to Fear' is a strange and ultimately disappointing little horror film that, like so many others in the genre today, has a terrific and potentially compelling premise, but winds up being unable to turn that foundation into a cohesive story as strong as the initial concept.
That premise involves the town of Stull, Kansas – a real-life town with the dubious recognition as one of the seven gateways to hell – as it welcomes new preacher Dan (James Tupper), his wife Wendy (Anne Heche), their two daughters, Rebecca (Rebekah Brandes) and Mary (Jennifer Stone), and young son Christopher (Carter Cabassa) with such heartwarming geniality and open arms that it would make even the most naïve individual question their intent.
Early on, the film relies a great deal on tropes and heavy-handed symbolism, by focusing on shots of young farming hunk Noah (Ethan Peck), as he slaughters a lamb in the back of his pick-up truck in full view of the new preacher and his family. Rebecca initially brushes this off because Noah is super hunky, and this being a tight-knit farming community, lambs are likely to be slaughtered. Also, that's just normal behavior and not at all a portent of doom, right?. Not long after Stull's church-going population shows up to help move the new preacher and his family into their home, things start to get weird. Townsfolk gather underneath Rebecca's bedroom window at night, and she has visions of being attacked by one woman in particular, whose face winds up getting distorted (Japanese horror-style) with crummy CGI. Later, the weirdness continues, when Mary digs into a cake made by one of the townsfolk, only to have a weird fossilized tooth stab her in the mouth and poison her – thereby teaching the young woman a powerful lesson about spoiling her dinner.
Questions regarding the town's intentions with the family only grow more intense, as Rebecca begins a mildly flirtatious relationship with Noah and in doing so, manages to uncover the dark secret involving his adoptive guardian, Preacher Kingsman (Clancy Brown). Sadly, while the mystery of Stull and its cult-like residents plays a large part in the overall narrative, Preacher Dan and his family – and especially Rebecca – aren't given any opportunity to actually be involved in the story; they're simply relegated to reacting to all the events leading up to the film's big, sometimes unsettling, but largely goofy and overly telegraphed third act.
There is a great deal of atmosphere that could have been pulled from the film's setting, and yet there's hardly any mention of Stull's place in urban legend and the importance of that fact with regard to specifics of the story. It's akin to a zombie movie in which no one has ever heard of a zombie. Chances are, had 'Nothing Left to Fear' played up Stull's less-than-savory reputation as one of the seven gateways to hell – instead of assuming the audience already knew, or figured it wasn't important enough to mention – the film could have milked its premise for a nice sense of doom early on, and made the third act feel more like a well-earned pay-off, rather than an abrupt and clumsy leap into the supernatural. Instead, the whole thing feels like a bad rip-off of Ursula Le Guin's 'Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.'
But failing to properly capitalize on a well-known location is actually the least of the film's poorly calculated moves. Some of the film's issues could be attributed to the fact that it was helmed by first time feature director Anthony Leonardi III – whose previous credits are on the art department for director Gore Verbinski's 'Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End,' 'Rango,' and 'The Lone Ranger' – who makes, or simply goes along with several curious and perplexing narrative decisions without reconciling how they fit in with what the story's ultimate goals are. Then again, perhaps the issue is that 'Nothing Left to Fear' simply has no goals, in terms of its narrative meaning something beyond getting from beginning to end.
The strangest of these decisions has to be that 'Nothing Left to Fear' is apparently set in a very specific time period – the early-to-mid '90s, it seems – which we are given clues to through the reliance of landlines over cell phones, the use of a portable compact disc player, and the kind of television set Rebecca and her family have (i.e., CRT vs. LCD or Plasma) – though some of the makes and models of the cars used in the film could be later than the '90s, which confuses the whole thing even more. Like the town of Stull, these aspects aren't given any real purpose within the narrative, even though their inclusion is no doubt deliberate. The only problem is, there's no justification or hint as to why the filmmakers chose to provide these clues as to when the film takes place, and that makes the already curious decisions of Leonardi, screenwriter Johnathan W.C. Mills and producer Slash (yes, the former Guns N' Roses guitarist and current top hat enthusiast) feel even more meaningless and disappointingly arbitrary.In the end, all of the unanswered questions and the ongoing search for meaning isn't really surprising, as 'Nothing Left to Fear' feels less like a movie that was made with a particular vision in mind, and more like a movie that was made simply because it could be. There are elements here that suggest a decent horror film in the making, but Leonardi's heavy reliance on familiar horror movie tropes, along with underdeveloped characters and a half-baked storyline prove that film never really came close to fruition.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nothing Left to Fear' comes from Starz and Anchor Bay as a 25GB Blu-ray disc + DVD combo pack. There are several previews that auto play before the top menu, but they can all be skipped.
As a horror film, 'Nothing Left to Fear' spends a lot of time during its denouement running around in the dark, which can sometimes be a problem for films of this ilk when it comes to accuracy in black levels, reduction of banding and maintaining detail in the absence of a prominent light source. Happily, the disc's 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer manages a consistently bright, and mostly detailed image from beginning to end.
Early on, the image does a terrific job of picking up fine details in the setting's background, making Louisiana (which stands-in for Stull, Kansas) look particularly lovely, lush, and green. Aside from the clear background elements, deep focus and vibrant colors, the disc also exhibits a nice amount of fine detail in the actors' faces, as well as subtle details in the various textures of their clothing. In fact, if it weren't for feeling a little flat and one-dimensional in some interior sequences, the image would be close to impeccable.
The one failing, though, is that for all the effort that was apparently put into the image, the CGI still ends up looking very clunky, disjointed, and altogether unpleasant in the film. In an effort to tone that down, it seems that the movie wisely placed it's final act primarily at night, and that does make some of the special effects look a little better. Had the production utilized more practical effects (it does feature some), rather than an overabundance of computer generated imagery, it might have inadvertently created a more palpable sense of horror in the final moments that could have utilized the otherwise terrific image of the disc, rather than attempt to hide from it.
For whatever reason Starz and Anchor Bay have chosen Dolby TrueHD 5.1 as their go-to audio format, and while there shouldn't be that drastic a change from, say, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, 'Nothing Left to Fear' and another recent Starz release, 'No One Lives' both have incredibly weak, audio mixes that struggle to balance their sound effects and musical score with the actor's dialogue. This results in lower than normal voices that can be difficult to understand without the presence of another audio element, but once the score kicks in, it's as if the actors were recorded without the aid of a boom mic.
Collectively there is an issue with the sound, but separately the elements are presented in a fairly clean and sometimes robust manner. The score (which was co-composed by Slash) tends to take over the soundtrack when it builds to a crescendo – forcing those who turned the audio up to hear the actors to scramble for their remote. Similarly, sound effects sound good on their own, displaying decent directionality in some cases and creating a decent sense of atmosphere in certain scenes (there is a nice echo during a ritual scene late in the film), but other times, there appears to have been no effort in making the environment feel as though it was a real, lived-in location.
All in all, this is a disappointing audio mix for a film that could have used another check in the "win" column.
'Nothing Left to Fear' feels like a quick cash-grab at the home video market just before Halloween. While this film will probably catch the eye of more than a few renters looking for a quick fright to get them in the spirit of things, they'd be better served finding their scares elsewhere. With a decent image and fairly poor sound, this low-budget horror flick might appeal to horror fans, but should probably be skipped by everyone else.