Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken
Director: Jason Zada
Writers: Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca
One of the problems with horror these days is that so few of its filmmakers ever attempt to try something innovative or challenging. For every It Follows or The Babadook that gets made, there comes along around five mediocre offerings like The Forest. These films content themselves with imitating movies that have proven to be popular and successful in the past without even attempting to understand why they worked in the first place. They think that horror films begin and end with scary-looking imagery, eerie music and the occasional (or in some cases tiringly frequent) jump scare with barely a thought given to such elements as story, character and atmosphere. Movies like The Forest do not work as horror films because they are dull, tame and predictable. They understand nothing about people or about fear, they only know how to lift ideas out of vastly superior films and grind them down into worn-out formulas and clichés.
The film follows Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) who receives a phone call from Japan informing her that her twin sister Jess has died. She was reportedly seen heading into Aokigahara Forest, a site that has received infamy as a destination for the suicidal, and hasn’t been seen since. Sara however, relying on a special twin-sisterly bond that she shares with Jess, believes her sister to be alive and flies to Japan in order to find her. At the hotel where her sister stayed Sara meets a reporter called Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who offers to lead her into the forest with the local guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). As they venture deeper into the forest Sara sees many strange sights and has had no luck finding her sister as night approaches. However Sara refuses to give up the search and remains in the forest over the course of the night in spite of Michi’s warnings.
You would think that such a setting as a forest where people gather to commit suicide and where their souls continue to walk and to haunt those that venture within would be ideal for building an irrepressible atmosphere of dread and despair. If only this film understood that. Instead of a compelling horror about the human spirit and the kind of pain, agony and misery that leads people to bring their own lives to an end, The Forest offers some creepy trees, a couple of scary faces and about a dozen jump scares. I’m not one of those people who thinks that jump scares are a cheap way to score fear points; in fact I think that a well-executed jump scare can be absolutely terrifying (Carrie is a great example). The problem lies with filmmakers who think that making a viewer suddenly jump by abruptly showing them an image of an extreme close-up accompanied by a sudden loud noise is the same thing as scaring them. Such a practice in the absence of anything of actual frightfulness serves only to frustrate and aggravate the viewer, especially when they can see the jump scares coming from over a mile away. The forest itself does manage to convey a certain ambiance and mood that could almost justify the film’s label as a horror film, if only the film ever put it to actual use.
At the end of the day though, horror is about people. If you cannot relate to the characters involved and cannot invest yourself in their fate, you’re not going to care when something nasty happens to them. Dormer, in her defence, was given the task of playing two separate characters in a film that isn’t able to provide her with even one. As an actress she brings more life to both of these roles than the film warranted or deserved. A solid performance however is still not a substitute for personality, motivation or association and this film has little to speak of. The movie apparently wants to use the suicide forest as a backdrop to explore a fractured and inconsolable part of Sara’s soul that stems from a traumatic experience in her past. The film however glosses over the character building and thematic confrontation that such an approach would require in favour of jump scares involving a Japanese schoolgirl.
The Forest is, if nothing else, an informative essay on everything that is wrong with the horror genre today. It is so tedious and obvious in its attempt to create horror that the only people likely to find it scary are those who have somehow never seen The Blair Witch Project, The Evil Dead or literally any Japanese horror film ever and are therefore oblivious to the overdone tropes that the film so readily employs. There are maybe one or two ‘gotcha’ moments that might catch viewers off guard but, again, that’s not the same thing as scaring them. There is nothing immersive, nothing introspective and, in turn, nothing scary about this film that warrants viewing. The Forest is yet another lacklustre horror film that nobody will remember in a year’s time.