Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Images
Directed by: Jason Zada
Written by: Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell & Nick Antosca
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Eoin Macken & Stephanie Vogt
Aokigahara Forest is one of the creepiest places in the world. This 35-kilometer patch of land is known by two other names: Sea of Trees (because it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the harshly wooded landscape) and Suicide Forest (because a massive amount of people have ended their lives there). This location would make the perfect setting for a well-crafted horror movie. THE FOREST is not that movie. January is usually a dump month for films that studios have no faith in and THE FOREST was released in the first weekend of 2016. To lower expectations even further, the trailer looked like a generic cash-in. THE FOREST surprised me in having a couple of redeeming qualities, but it’s definitely aimed at pre-teens and those who aren’t very well acquainted with the horror genre.
Sara and Jess Price (both played by Natalie Dormer) are twins. Jess is teaching in Japan, while Sara remains in America with her fiancé (Eoin Macken). Sara becomes concerned when she receives a phone call that claims Jess might be in danger and these suspicious are confirmed by a tingling “twin sense.” Sara travels to Japan and goes to the last location where Jess was spotted, Aokigahara Forest. With park guide Aiden (Taylor Kinney) by her side, Sara ventures deep into the forest. When they find her sister’s tent, Sara disobeys advice given by literally every Japanese person she’s met up to that point and decides to spend the night in the suicide forest. Pissed off ghosts supposedly lurk within the sea of trees, but those are just silly superstitions, right? This is a horror movie, so you already know the answer to that question.
Natalie Dormer is decent in her dual performance as Sara and Jess, even though these two characters aren’t given much development. Background information comes from a few flashbacks and occasional “twin sense” exposition. The only key difference between these twins is that one of them is a goth (with darker hair) and the other one looks like normal Natalie Dormer. Taylor Kinney is ambiguously friendly/threatening as Aiden and Eoin Macken’s fiancé character shows up for less than five minutes. This is mainly Dormer’s time to shine. Her main character may be a dunce, but Dormer adds a bit of talent to this otherwise stale ghost story.
The mostly lame script deserves props for not taking a cheap jump scare approach to the material (as suggested by the dumb theatrical trailer). There are a handful of jump scares, but they actually stem from something threatening and aren’t just fake-outs. Instead, THE FOREST seems to aim for more of a head-trip approach than a lazy cash-grab. Though it doesn’t succeed (due to almost no character development and dumb clichés), this psychological attempt is far more interesting to watch than most other PG-13 horror flicks of this type. At the very least, there were a few cool ideas in this film, which is more than can be said for most other January released horror films in recent years.
Since the Japanese government isn’t exactly thrilled about Aokigahara forest, filming on-location has been outlawed. In an effort to capture a similar location (and it fooled me), the filmmakers used a thick Serbian forest as a convincing substitute. FOREST has a somewhat spooky atmosphere, which isn’t exactly difficult when you consider that the setting is one of the creepiest places on earth. While THE FOREST never made me jump and has three very cheesy apparitions, most of Aokigahara’s ghostly inhabitants look pretty damn creepy. I also liked the film’s conclusion, even though it would have been much more effective with a better screenplay behind it.
Maybe it’s due to my severely low expectations and a highly suggestive January release date, but I didn’t find THE FOREST to be nearly as terrible as I expected it to be. It’s definitely a bad movie, but has enough surprisingly redeeming qualities that you can see a potential skeleton of a good film lying within. The suicide forest automatically lends itself as perfect material for a fantastic horror story and I hope that someone eventually takes full advantage of that. In the realm of “horror movies that have terrifying locations and still manage to suck,” THE FOREST ranks better than AS ABOVE, SO BELOW and THE PYRAMID, and comfortably sits alongside CHERNOBYL DIARIES.