by Haley GoetzWhen the most ominous word in a film is “basement,” it becomes apparent that some rather large narrative flaws exist. In Jason Zada’s horror/thriller, The Forest, nothing is actually scary, save for a few cracking twigs and blank stares. The film’s story is grounded around Sara Price, an American woman who comes to Japan after she has a premonition that her twin sister Jess is in grave danger. Jess, who is teaching English to Japanese children, has had a tumultuous past and Sara knows this. Once in Japan, Sara comes to learn that Jess has disappeared into the Aokigahara, or the “Sea of Trees,” a sprawling forest located on Mount Fuji’s northwestern flank. In this forest, people have been known to commit suicide, and it is stated that certain ghosts, or yurei, of people who have passed can follow those who enter.
Natalie Dormer, of Game of Thrones fame, plays both Sara and Jess Price. To be honest, I was slightly put off by the fact that she portrays both characters. It seemed a bit too campy for me, giving the film a slightly amateurish feel. I also didn’t especially appreciate the fact that Dormer’s Jess was dressed to be the exact polar opposite of Sara, with dark tones of hair color and eyeliner. Her character soon just became an embodiment of the “nobody understands me” breed of dressing that was popular with a subset of Hot Topic-loving adolescents in the mid-2000s. Jess’s character is essentially just a vehicle to enforce stereotypes of a troubled psyche. On the other hand, Taylor Kinney shines in the role of Aiden. Sara finds Aiden in the bar of her hotel near the Aokigahara, and they instantly hit it off, but what initially is charismatic about Aiden later becomes chilling. I enjoyed watching the transformation take place in Kinney’s character, as he allowed his unassuming charm to mask his darker side.
Aside from some cheap character quirks, there was another aspect of the film that I had a problem with and that was its controversial subject matter. The story, as conceived and written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai, is centered around a real place where a great deal of suicides have actually been carried out. Each year, roughly 100 corpses are retrieved from the forest. While the film certainly doesn’t glamorize the act of committing suicide, it almost uses it for sensationalized horror rather than treating it as the tragedy it is. When a hanged corpse turns into a terrifying entity in the film, I found myself repulsed. I personally feel that the victim of a suicide should not be twisted into a demonic ghost. It doesn’t make much sense that every single dead person should turn into something terrifying, nor is having a depiction of something like this respectful to the spirit of that person.
I will admit that there are a fair amount of scares in the film. There was a lot of tension that built up throughout, leading to its final narrative twist and conclusion. In preparation for this, some effective, yet light jump scares were placed at different points in order to get the audience ready for more prolonged sequences of terror.
I found myself cowering at certain moments that took place in the forest itself. The camerawork, as orchestrated by Danish cinematographer, Mattias Troelstrup, is frenetic and atmospheric, and I enjoyed how the shots and specific framing choices captured the essence of its location. I got a true feel for the space and silence of the forest.
Overall, however, I would most compare this film with the 2012 Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, The Woman in Black. It’s similar to The Forest in a lot of ways. The main character is an international star, and it’s at best a mediocre film with sub-par scares. Jason Zada is a rather young director (this is his feature debut following a career in advertising), and while there were certain moments that initially struck me as making this a decent addition to the canon of modern horror films, I would more than definitely say that Zada needs to develop his craft and skillset a bit more before he is able to make a truly effective film.
If you’re a fan of (very) predictable jump scares and narrative climaxes that are hilarious rather than horrifying, then you’ll enjoy The Forest. I was entertained by this film, but I’m also sort of mad that I spent money seeing it. The movie is just barely 90 minutes long, and it almost feels more like an stretched-out pilot episode or a television season finale than a fully-finished film. If you’re a fan of seeing Natalie Dormer’s face, then go see it. If you don’t watch Game of Thrones, don’t bother. The Forest is served lukewarm at its absolute best.
2 out of 5 stars