While films like The Witch arise from the relative obscurity of the independent horror scene to take the world by storm, big budget horror films continue to tread all-too-familiar paths. Such is the case with director Jason Zada’s The Forest, a sadly routine take on a fascinating subject – the so-called “Forest of Death” at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan.
Natalie Dormer stars as twin sisters Sara and Jess Price, separated geographically by the troubled Jess’s move to Japan. Sara receives a call from local police stating Jess has entered the Aokigahara forest and disappeared. While police immediately suspect that Jess has committed suicide, Sara is convinced, thanks to a mystical ethereal bond with her twin, that Jess is alive. Secure in this knowledge, Sara abandons her boyfriend to go in search of her sister.
Once in Japan, Sara is given the low-down on the forest’s dark legend. Essentially, the forest is home to yurei, Japanese spirits that seek revenge or harm, and Sara is dutifully warned to never enter the forest at night and to remain on the trails when she is exploring during daylight hours. Sara encounters Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a reporter who takes an interest in Sara’s search for her sister. Along with experienced guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), the trio sets out for the farther reaches of Aokigahara forest in search of signs of life.
Once inside, Sara and the gang find remnants of Jess’s campsite and Sara and Aiden vow to remain after dark to wait for Jess. Michi (wisely) bugs out and promises to return the following day. As night falls, all sorts of supernatural shenanigans befall our heroes and creates doubt as to Aiden’s true motives and Jess’s ultimate fate.
Much of the film leans on the notion of past horrors given life by the spiris of the forest, and one might think back to a film that employs a similar premise, like Event Horizon. Unfortunately, nothing about The Forest garners much of a reaction, perhaps because the events of the film feel so routine. There’s nothing overtly terrible about The Forest, but neither is there a good reason to recommend it.
Dormer, famous for her role as Queen Marjorie on game of Thrones, is adequate in the role, but neither her performance, nor the emotional journey of her character(s) through the film elevate the material beyond the expected eerie glimpses of figures in the woods, or the eventual revelations about the histories of the two sisters.
The one positive of the film is the conclusion, an unusually glum affair for this type of film. The effect, however, is lessened by the fact that so much of the final moments involve the missing sister, Jess, a character we have seen precious little of throughout the runtime. All we’ve heard from this character is told in flashback and through dialog from Sara, so, when we do get some time with Jess, it feels like an ending supplied by the screenwriters and not an organic conclusion from the characters’ journey.
It’s also disappointing that the Aokigahara forest, a real place with a dark and far-reaching history, is wasted int his film. It’s a remarkable place with an astounding amount of eerie tales to accompany it, and its use in this film as a vehicle for some routine scares is a real letdown considering the possibilities of this setting and the legends of yurei in Japanese culture.
The Forest is, ultimately, a disappointment, a collection of ingredients that could make a fine horror film, but a lack of ambition or creativity lands this squarely in ho-hum territory, an exercise in by-the-numbers big budget horror that satisfies none and only creates more of a schism between the truly great work being done in horror filmmaking and major studio releases.