The Forest struggles to transform its spooky premise and haunting setting into memorable or unique on-screen movie scares.
Following the tragic death of their parents, twins Sara and Jess Price learned to look out for each other; though, more often than not, it was Sara coming to the rescue when Jess was in trouble. Now adults, the pair remain close, despite living thousands of miles apart, so when Sara awakens from a frightening vision of Jess running in terror, she packs her bags and heads-out to her sister’s last known location: Tokyo.
Upon her arrival, Sara learns that Jess, who had been working as an english teacher at a Japanese school, had journeyed unaccompanied into the Aokigahara forest (also known as Japan’s infamous “Suicide Forest”). For decades, countless saddened souls have entered Aokigahara to end their lives; though, local legends suggest something far more sinister might be occurring. Convinced her sister is still alive, Sara prepares to search the forest, enlisting the aid of a travel writer, Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and local guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) to accompany her; however, Sara’s guilt and desperation leave her vulnerable to the influence of angry spirits that haunt Aokigahara – spirits who are determined to prevent Sara from ever leaving Suicide Forest.
Freshman filmmaker Jason Zada directed The Forest – and the finished product is a fitting reflection of both the moviemaker’s ambition and inexperience (for a mixed result). Surrounded by a crew of equally green feature cinematographers and writers, Zada maintains a level of sophistication and care that is rarely present in otherwise straightforward horror-thrillers like The Forest. It’s clear that Zada and his team, along with star Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) aimed to make a good movie – unfortunately, in spite of that passion, The Forest struggles to transform its spooky premise and haunting setting into memorable or unique on-screen movie scares.
The Forest has been marketed as “Based on a True Story” and while the film’s setting is real, and based in existing mythology of Japanese yūrei (angry spirits), the tale of an American twin venturing into Aokigahara to find her troubled sister is a work of fiction. In the end, The Forest fumbles in balancing fact with fiction throughout its 95 minute runtime – since the story of Sara and Jess Price, while an adequate entry point into Aokigahara mythology, is never as interesting as Suicide Forest itself. The Japanese locale is a great setting for a ghost story but Zada’s horror tale stumbles from one familiar scary movie trope to bland jump scare after another – culminating in an anti-climactic final act that fails to payoff either the Sara Price story or larger yūrei legends.
Even though Natalie Dormer stars, the forest itself gives the most intriguing performance in the film. Zada is at his best when Sara and her chaperones first investigate the forest – as the director sets a rich stage. Yet, after priming his audience with disturbing details from the eerie (real-world) Aokigahara, Zada relegates the tale to nondescript camping sites, caves, and abandoned houses, while character motivations and actions slide into frustrating cliches that plague the entire horror genre (read: The Forest equivalent of running up a flight of stairs to get away from a murdering psycho). As a result, whatever credit Zada earns in the first act, with patient build-up and a keen eye for specifics, is dashed as soon as otherwise intelligent and level-headed characters begin to do downright stupid things – even before the Suicide Forest starts actually messing with their heads.
Still, Dormer is solid as The Forest‘s central scream queen – especially in the face of challenges that could, in less capable hands, have been eye-rolling: scenes of paranoia, hallucination, and fright, not to mention the hurdle of playing (not to mention differentiating) both Sara and Jess, aren’t a blemish on the actress’s personal filmography. Zada and his screenwriters imbue Sara with enough layers and idiosyncrasies to keep the audience invested in her mission but her responses to the situation unfolding in Aokigahara ultimately puts the character at-odds with any believable groundwork (albeit for a ghost story) that was previously laid.
Supporting players are mostly one-note outlines designed to add texture to Sara’s backstory or explain Aokigahara lore – with the exception of Aiden (played by of Taylor Kinney). Aiden does not do much to defy horror movie archetypes but is a functional partner for Sara’s misadventure – walking a fine line between friend and foe, as the forest begins to distort reality.
That all said, while The Forest is an overall missed opportunity, based on such an enticing setup, viewers who aren’t looking for the next scary movie sensation will still get a competent piece of filmmaking – one that attempts (sometimes unsuccessfully) to blend horror and drama into a thought-provoking ghost story. Zada and his collaborators inject more substance and technique into The Forest than competing filmmakers might with similar material. It’s just that, ultimately, the assembled film isn’t very frightening and doesn’t utilize its greatest strengths, the Aokigahara setting and Suicide Forest legend, to produce a memorable note within the supernatural horror genre.
Thanks to Aokigahara mythology, and observant world-building, The Forest is a creepy movie – but unfocused and uninventive horror setups ultimately undermine any well-intentioned effort that Zada and his team put forth. For curious film (and Natalie Dormer) fans, The Forest may pass as an interesting misfire (with a talented roster of actors and filmmakers behind it) but in Zada’s aim to say something interesting, in terms of character, theme, and cinematography, his horror-thriller struggles to deliver on its most basic goal: effective scares.
The Forest runs 95 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and images. Now playing in theaters.
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