Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Locals (New Zealand, 2003)

We went into this unknown Kiwi flick with less than high expectations, assuming that it would simply be yet another body-count movie but populated by folks with nice accents. Soon enough, we came to think that it might instead be yet another low budget, community-of-backwood-psychos film ala 2008's Australian Dying Bread (trailer), which is populated by fewer nice accents... But somewhere along the way, we suddenly found ourselves no longer trying to second-guess the film's intentions and, instead, simply got lost in a relatively modest but clever (if flawed) and surprisingly well-made horror movie. True, an astute viewer can predict most of the twists in advance – especially if they have an eye for skin tone – but The Locals nevertheless manages to keep the viewer perched tensely in interest all the way to its memorable ending. Odd that the film is, to date, the only feature film of music video and commercial director Greg Page, who also wrote the script. (M. Night Shyamalan, for example, has managed to make a viable if no-longer-respected career out of making far more expensive and indefinitely worse "surprise ending" films.)
The Locals opens with a beautifully done aerial shot that glides across the fertile, green farmlands of rural New Zealand, inter-spaced with occasional shots of deserted, forlorn houses and the rusty carcasses of cars and machinery. Then a tractor rolls up to the edge of a wood and an armed man disembarks to begin digging up an unmarked grave, but before he can finish he is knifed from behind and falls dead in the shallow hole he has dug. After this rather eye-catching opening, The Locals moves to Auckland to introduce its two male leads, Grant (John Barker) and Paul (Dwayne Cameron) – and between the two, it's pretty easy to guess who the "Final Guy" will be.
Grant has been dumped by his squeeze for not like The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), and Paul manages to convince him to leave for a shared weekend of surfing somewhere on the Waikato Coast. At this point, the film almost begins to drag, but the interlude is needed to establish the depth of their friendship; in any event, just at the point when one begins to think "get on with it," night falls and the classic shortcut is taken – but plans for the beach get tossed aside with the sudden appearance of two girls, Kelly (Kate Elliott) and Lisa (Aidee Walker), both sporting oddly outdated outfits, who invite the lads to join then at a party. Before long, the girls are nowhere to be seen and the boys crash the car, forcing them to search for help. Instead, they witness a murder and suddenly find themselves on the run from the murderer and his gang of back-land thugs....
If the film does drag a tad initially, once the main bad guy Bill (Peter McCauley, also seen in Perfect Creature [2006 / trailer]) shows up the film takes off and tension and twists definitely increase. Grant and Paul quickly get separated: Paul loses his car keys but hooks up with Kelly and Lisa, while Grant is forced at gunpoint by a man named Martin (Paul Glover of The Ugly [1997 / trailer]) to finish digging up the grave seen at the start of the film. Between the various terrifying events they experience, it soon becomes very clear that the people of the area have remarkable regenerative powers...
The Locals never actually answers the question why those in that specific area of New Zealand keep coming back to life, but then, the film is not out to explain the supernatural but to present the supernatural, which it does successfully. Regrettably, it is hard to really talk about the film's slight narrative flaws without giving away too much of the plot, so we'll rest here by simply stating that there are some glaring illogicalities in the events that transpire, but the game cast, sure direction and constant movement manage to gloss over them well enough to keep the film gripping. The Locals also hides its modest budget well, and even manages to pull on the heart strings without becoming maudlin. In general the actors (particularly the younger ones) do a top job, and the direction is amazingly mature, occasionally even dipping into arty without ever becoming too obtrusive – the scene of Grant driving the car through the countryside close to the end, like the opening aerial shot, is particularly fine.
In the end, though dotted with the occasional horror shock, The Locals is less a dead-teenager or horror film than a supernatural suspense film. For a modern B-film, it is a bit light on the blood and violence, but at least both are effective when utilized. It might not be a masterpiece, but it does make for an enjoyable viewing – as such, The Locals is thus well worth giving a shot.

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