The Locals (2003) Movie Review

The first thing you notice about Greg Page’s “The Locals” is this: cinematographer Bret Nichols has no idea how to light a movie, much less a horror film.

Our New Zealand film opens with urbanites Grant (John Barker) and Paul (Dwayne Cameron) on their way to the coast for some surfing, with Paul hoping to help alleviate buddy Grant’s love pains. After an accident leaves their car stuck in a ditch in the countryside at night, the duo stumbles onto a murder while seeking help. If that wasn’t bad enough, it seems everyone in this backwoods town (i.e. the locals) are after our heroes to, one assumes, silence them. Then again, maybe they just like riding around in a pick-up truck in the middle of the night.

Back to my original notion, which is that cinematographer Bret Nichols has absolutely no idea how to light a horror movie. This is made perfectly clear 20 minutes into the film, after the boys have run into the ditch and goes to find help. Although it’s the dead of night, and there are no streetlights anywhere, there’s nevertheless plenty of artificial light to be found. Which sort of makes one of the boys carrying a flashlight a bit unnecessary since, you know, there are all those big giant mysterious spotlights shining on them the whole time. You’d think this type of bad set-up would be readily noticeable to first-time director Page, but apparently not, because it continues for the entire movie. What is this, a horror movie or a commercial?

The film opens with one type of storyline, only to detour into something else. A dash of “The Sixth Sense” with the Nicole Kidman thriller “The Others”, if you will. In a lot of ways, the movie’s title is a misnomer, but I suppose that might be part of the filmmakers’ plan all along — trick the audience into thinking the movie is one thing then pull the ol’ switch-a-roo. Does it work? It does in that the sudden plot shift comes completely out of left field, thereby blindsiding the audience. Is it logical? Not in the slightest, but then again what horror movie is?

“The Locals” would have worked best if sold as a Head Trip film, where what we think is reality is in fact not, and the point is to let the movie pull us along until it decides to send us reeling with its Big Reveal. And the film almost pulls it off, if not for the very poor technical craftsmanship, which really detracts from the script. It may seem petty to harp on the film’s nonexistent skill with lights, but consider this: the movie takes place almost entirely at night and on a lonely stretch of dirt road in the middle of nowhere. That’s prime fodder for an atmospheric and intense film where darkness is absolute. This is what “Dead End” did with tremendous success.

Not so with “The Locals”. The lighting is just so God awful that you can see everything, even though the characters don’t. It completely ruins any chance at establishing mood or atmosphere, and as a result little to no tension is present. How scary is it to see a character race through one bright pool of artificial light and into another? This makes the characters running around with flashlights really funny, because the illuminations they get from the flashlights come across like someone shining their flashlight at the sun. It’s humorous, but even more so because everyone onscreen acts as if it’s very dark, even when it’s so bright your eyes will hurt.

As the two leads, Barker and Cameron do decent jobs, although not very much is required of them except to run and fall and run some more. Barker, as the pseudo lead, does most of the running and hiding, while Cameron gets to interact with two rejects from the ’80s who aren’t what they seem to be. Everyone in the film isn’t what he or she seems to be, as that is, not surprisingly, directly related to the film’s Big Reveal.

The main villain is played by Peter McCauley, most known to folks in the States as Challenger on the syndicated show “The Lost World”. McCauley has so little to do that it’s a crime; but even then, he remains the only actor with gravitas in the whole affair. And although the film is called “The Locals”, there really doesn’t seem to be that many people in this town — about four or five, in fact, until the very end when we see a lot of them. Not that it matters, because they barely fit into the plot. The main thrust of the plot itself is a bit muddled; clearly the film has a good idea, but doesn’t quite have the expertise to really explore it.

In the hands of better filmmakers, I’m sure “The Locals” could have been a decent to good Mind Trip film. The acting is reasonably decent, even if it’s a bit hard to decipher some of the Kiwi speech pattern. In the end, “The Locals” seems too much like an over-extended episode of “The Twilight Zone”. In fact, I’m reasonably certain I saw this exact same plot as a 45-minute episode on the TV show “Poltergeist: The Legacy”.

Greg Page (director) / Greg Page (screenplay)
CAST: John Barker …. Grant
Dwayne Cameron …. Paul
Kate Elliott …. Kelly
Aidee Walker …. Lisa
Paul Glover …. Martin

Buy The Locals on DVD