Director: Jason Zada
Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa
Plot: When Sara’s (Dormer) twin sister goes missing in a popular suicide forest, Sara goes deep into the woods to find her. But the forest has dark powers…
The film opens so hastily, it feels like someone sat on the fast forward button. The premise is set up sharply. Natalie Dormer’s overprotective sister has always had this internal connection with her twin sister, Jess, established ever since their parents were killed by a drunk driver. When her sister disappears from her secondary school job in Japan, the police ring Sara in the middle of the night, explaining she was last sighted heading into a popular suicide forest, probably conflicted about her parents’ death. After three days missing, the police assume that she has killed herself, something Sara refuses to believe. Heading to Japan herself, she finds an investigative journalist, curious enough to act as her guide, and heads into the Forest. However, there are dark spirits hidden in the woods that seize anyone off the beaten path, forcing them to look at their dark secrets and confront their own mortality. Is this what happened to Jess, and is this what will happen to Sara?
There are some neat things in The Forest. For one, my main compliment would be the scenery. Aokigahara is a real life place, where people do go to commit suicide. As a result, it has this hauntingly beautiful mythology that just drips from the trees. Zada makes the most of this, panning across the gorgeous landscape and including several cutaways so the audience is aware just how green it is. The cinematography is on point as well, framing the characters and scenery in interesting ways to keep the pace smooth, during talking head scenes. Each new section of the forest is awe-inspiring and if it wasn’t such a god damn creepy place, you would be tempted to visit it in your spare time. It also makes for a good place for a horror shoot. Squint and there is always something potentially hiding in the distance, the forest stretching on as far as the human eye can see. I imagine this would be a glorious experience in 4K. The other main attraction here is, of course, the star. Natalie Dormer is a sure fire actress to have in any movie and is a strong lead here. The USP that Dormer brings to this performance is that she really sells the fragmented mind side of the character, something that really brought a lot to the story. As the movie hits its closing point, we really get the idea that Dormer’s character is becoming unhinged by the whispering in the forest. It almost becomes scary for the characters around herself, as the story becomes more and more unpredictable. And this leads to my final compliment – there is some good writing buried in the Forest, namely with the relationship between Dormer and Kinney. You can’t help but pity poor Aiden in this movie, the charming reporter who can’t seem to do right by Dormer. As the Forest turns Dormer against Aiden, it is a disturbing watch. The guy has the best intentions, but circumstances conspire against him and paint him as a suspicious character. The movie never confirms his true intentions which adds to the ambiguity of his character, but it is a sharp piece of writing which really fuels the Forest.
Sadly, there is a lot missing here. The Forest feels like a great idea that needed one more strong idea latched to it, to really make it work. The shifting psychology is a strong concept, but on its own, it feels strangely adrift in a clumsy movie. The biggest hint that this is movie isn’t sure where it is going is the majority of false-start jump scares. We get pedestrians banging sharply on windows, dream sequences that bring in the shocks early… albeit there is one fantastic set-piece in a long hotel corridor with a dying light. The story is clearly fumbling around with its set-up, desperate to get to the scary bits in the Forest, but unable to rush the development of its central plot and characters. However, when we get to the Forest, we are strangely absent of spooks. Sure, they are jumps aplenty, some of them moderately thrilling. However, the Forest needs a specific baddie to tie the story together. The monsters are made up of generic scary faces, switching depending on the mood of the scare. There is a great opportunity to blend Western and Eastern horror here, seeing as it is set in Japan without being a remake of something, but that is a squandered chance. In the end, the movie goes for distant figures, always watching and waiting for the lead to make a mistake. It fails to give the Forest a memorable quality. By the end, there are a few too many ropey horror clichés that scream insecurity in the writing. The Forest is thrown onto the forgettable pile and you move onto better scary movies.
Final Verdict: A strong core idea is ruined by not enough bulking up, creating a messy, uncertain horror with not enough scares.