As I watched The Forest, drawn in by Aokigahara’s natural horrors, I couldn’t help but feel a weird sense of déjà vu. A nostalgic sensation that called back to my October horror binge – oh right, because I DID see an almost identical story in Grave Halloween only a few months back. That’s not to say similar movies can’t coexist peacefully, and admittedly, The Forest is much better than that previous Syfy effort I just mentioned, but director Jason Zada’s new film is not without its own downfalls. In a wilderness full of danger and deception, it’s easy to find yourself hopelessly lost – just ask screenwriters Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai.
Natalie Dormer stars as an identical twin named Sara, whose country-hopping sister, Jess, goes missing in the aforementioned Japanese forest. When a lost soul enters Aokigahara, it’s usually to commit suicide. Despite the forest’s reputation, and the troubling fact that Jess voluntarily entered it, Sara’s twin-connected intuition convinces her that Jess is still alive, lost and depressingly alone.
This leads Sara straight to Japan, where she decides to search the forest on her own, but ends up finding a companion in travel journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney). There are many stories about Aokigahara, none of which deter Sara and her motivation – but she’s about to find out that the Yūreis who haunt Mount Fuji might be more than tall tales.
At times, The Forest is a transplanted bit of Japanese-inspired horror built on the fork-tongued lies that Yūreis spread. A quick bit of background: a Yūrei is far worst than a ghost – these creatures are spirits who use your own fears against you. Scares aren’t just physical, they’re psychological; the Yūreis’ victims get sucked in by the siren song of demons who twist fears into psychotic traps, all the while hiding behind towering trees. That’s a promising setup. But, unfortunately, Zada gets too hung up on jump-scares to make proper use of these manipulative monsters, as he constructs the spooky haunted forest flick you’re expecting from frame one.
With that said, Zada’s best moments involve a little Japanese schoolgirl Yūrei whose face morphs into something vile. For a movie based on psychological infestations, The Forest‘s best moments give time to some seriously creepy makeup design that’s everything nightmares are made of. Unfortunately, these moments are far sparser than one would hope, but what audiences do get dives into some freaky territory – a necessary distraction from the more mundane spooks The Forest holds.
Once the scarier visuals are stripped away, there’s not much besides Sara’s generic spiral into paranoia. She starts to believe that Aiden is out to kill her, mainly because a lost schoolgirl appears to be passing her vague warnings, and her attitude shifts from collaborative to defensive. Aiden tries to help, Sara misinterprets his advances, awkwardly long stares emphasize distrust – it’s the psychological torture we know, played out with an obvious blueprint. The film’s ending is mapped out before Sara even sets foot into Aokigahara, and her path doesn’t deviate much from what we’d assume.
My qualms aren’t with Dormer – I rather like her for the role, and she does just fine when harassed by her Yūrei stalkers. Same goes for Kinney, though the actor isn’t asked to do very much. It’s more that Dormer is forced to act crazy at every turn, barely fighting off the forest’s influence. She mutters self-help quotes a few times and tries to fight off invasions of the mind, but there’s never a moment that suggests she might be stronger than the stories she hears. Every local inhabitant she comes in contact with warns of a doomed fate, but Sara shrugs it off for the sake of family. “Nothing can go wrong when we’re driven by love!” Right, overly optimistic horror movie character, of course it can’t.
The Forest paints itself as an intelligent thriller yet opts for easy scare tactics that waste Sara’s fight against infinite sadness. Zada tries to make a statement about how our lives can be influenced by tragedy at a young age, but there’s just not enough personal substance to make us feel anything more than momentary fright at annoying jump scares. This is a straightforward beast that thinks it’s sneakier than it is, which could be fine for some – but will certainly prove disappointing for true horror fans.
In other words, welcome to January release season.
The Forest is an almost passable thriller that wants to freak your mind, but a heavy-handed focus on cheap scares prevents it from doing so.