IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 93 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Sara Price receives a phone call from the Japanese police telling her that they think that her troubled twin sister Jess, who when she was six witnessed the deaths of their parents, has disappeared. She was seen going into Aokigahara forest, an area at the northwest base of Mount Fuji known as a popular destination for the suicidal. Despite the concerns of her fiancé, Rob, she journeys to Japan and arrives at the hotel where her sister was staying. There, she befriends a reporter named Aiden. Along with a guide, Michim, they set off the next day into Aokigahara forest. The first thing they find is a abandoned tent that Sara recognises as Jess’s….
Well it’s certainly a promising setting for a horror movie. A forest that is the third most popular site for suicide in the world, to the point where a total of 105 bodies were found there in 2003, and in 1970, not only was a sign erected urging visitors not to take their own lives and to seek help instead, but police begun to carry out body searches…not that it seems to have done much good. A place where many believe that demons live, or spirits that feed on people’s sadness, and that they drive people to suicide unless they are strong enough to resist. A place where people genuinely hallucinate [or do they?]. A place where, centuries ago, family members would leave sick, crippled, or disabled loved ones to die during times of famine and war. A place that star of The Forest Natalie Dormer visited for research and, when she ventured five meters off the path to take photos, her Japanese driver was too terrified to even step half an inch over the path. What a great, scary, morbid place that seems ready made for a highly effective screen chiller that could both chill and mess with your mind. And….well….maybe one day they will make that movie, because the astonishingly disappointing The Forest [which is the sixth film with this title and the third horror movie] certainly isn’t it.
It’s not totally terrible, but it’s certainly very bland and lame. Then again, I wondered if something might have been up from the opening credits which list the three writers as: Nick Antosca and Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai. Writer’ Guild regulations dictate that, if multiple writers collaborate on a film, their names should be linked by ampersands [&], not separated by the word ‘and’, which is only intended to be used when screenwriters write individually, such as when different drafts of a script by writers who have long left a project are incorporated into the final screenplay. Therefore it seems that either The Forest’s three credited writers all wrote successive drafts, or, as seems more evident from the finished product, they all did portions of the script separately which were then pieced together. This may go some way to explaining why the film is such a mess. It seems that the three writers had different ideas about where the story should go and couldn’t come to any agreement. Therefore you have a film which is struggling to go in several different directions but doesn’t satisfactorily explore any of them.
First time director Jason Sada certainly shows some style at the beginning where the story is introduced in flashback form, the moving around in time handled in a dreamlike, almost expressionistic fashion, setting up expectations which are not really fulfilled. A frantic, shakycam [so much so that I wondered if this film was actually Found Footage and I just hadn’t realised it] few seconds of a woman running from something in a wood then cut to the same woman arriving in Tokyo a day or so before, only for her arrival to be interrupted in turn by further flashbacks telling us why she’s come to Japan in the first place. It’s then not very long at all before the movie tries to be frightening. In one hotel, Sara wonders into a loft where she sees her missing sister’s tent, with her inside. We get our usual jump scare, then Sara wakes up and it was all a dream, a device that is then used repeatedly throughout the rest of the movie, eventually resulting in tedium and frustration. Then we get a rather good bit in the second hotel, where Sara is wondering about again and not in a dream this time] and finds herself in one of those spooky corridors which usually succeed in creating unease with those ubiquitous flickering lights, and sees what could be an old lady. The payoff works quite well, partly because the build-up has been virtually silent and Sada obviously didn’t feel the need to ask the film’s composer to provide a loud musical jolt, which is refreshing, though he fall into the usual clichés of handling such moments later on. A moment where a class of Japanese school children are terrified at the sight of Sara because she’s the spitting image of her twin Jess also comes off quite well.
Unfortunately, these early scare scenes are rather pointless, except to suggest that Sara might be a little unbalanced, something which the film seems to hint at but not enough for it to be taken down more interesting and disturbing paths, and it also means that once the action switches to the forest, there’s neither enough tension nor enough contrast with the earlier scenes. They weren’t allowed to film in the actual Aokigahara forest, so they used a place in Serbia instead, but I think that the location scouts should have looked further, because this forest doesn’t seem very sinister. Cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup shoots it rather lushly, which makes parts of the film visually pleasing but which hardly helps in creating a sense of unease, even when Sara begins to see things and has trouble telling reality from fantasy. There’s little of the intense fear that the idea of being lost in the woods can create in a viewer even if he or she hasn’t had that experience. And surely it’s time to put the ‘Japanese schoolgirls are inherently’ scary thing to rest now? It’s become a little insulting, to be honest.
The Forest isn’t quite boring, partly due to Natalie Dormer’s intensely committed performance which suggests that she was pretending to act in a much better version of the film that existed in her head, and the pace is kept up, but after a while it’s obvious that the movie isn’t really prepared to go anywhere deep and interesting – yes, it often suggests such things but they are just not followed through – and the final act is just ridiculous, as if even the screenwriters didn’t have a clue what was going on and the editor just patched the footage together at random. Scenes of action look barely coherent what with all the shakycam. I understand that filmmakers feel that they must give the impression of frantic running, but they just overdo it – when I run visuals tend to be fairly clear and far steadier then what we see in many films. The saddest thing about The Forest though is its wasted potential. Nothing is done with the truly intriguing elements of Japanese mythology in the background. Little is really done with the muder/suicide that obviously haunts the lives of both sisters. Yes, we have flashbacks to it, and at one point Sara, who didn’t witness it when she was young, finally gets to see it, but you could cut these bits out and they probably wouldn’t be missed.
I love getting scared watching a movie, and if a horror movie doesn’t seem to be working that well, then I can sometimes emotionally get myself to ‘that place’ where I’m on edge and can be satisfactorily frightened, and where this feeling can continue after the movie has ended. This just didn’t work with The Forest though, aside from that afore mentioned bit in the hotel corridor and a few glimpses of demons which are rather unsettling at first but outstay their welcome. Having scary beings do virtually nothing in a film is fine if they’re not in it much, but if you’re going to feature them repeatedly, then for God’s sake have them do more than just stand around like statues. I even walked through some woods on the way home very late, and I didn’t feel uneasy whatsoever. Considering how easy it is for my mind to be messed with by a movie – so much so that when I returned home from seeing Paranormal Activity , I stood by my front door for five minutes because I was too damn scared to go into the house – that is quite a damning indictment of The Forest. I’ll tell you what though. I’m going to check out the TV movie Grave Halloween, which The Forest supposedly ripped off – and I’ll report back.