There was a joke once upon a time that Michael Bay used go around dreaming of bigger and crazier ways to make things blow up based on things he encountered. During the press tour for his 2005 film, The Island, he even admitted that the sequence of Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson kicking train axels of a truck and into oncoming highway traffic was inspired bya real life encounter. While driving, he passed a truck carrying them and immediately started wondering how much of mess they’d make if they fell off the truck. Sometimes even the simplest moments can become inspiration for films. The new horror film, the Forest, has come about because producer David S. Goyer (Blade & Dark Knight trilogies) read a Wikipedia article about its real life location and couldn’t believe that nobody had tried making a horror film about it before. Several years later, this is the result and it certainly answer’s Goyer’s question, just not in the way he wanted.
When Sara’s twin sister Jess (both Natalalie Dormer – Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) goes missing, Sara traces her whereabouts to Japan’s Aokigahara suicide forest (.... no really). With her reporter friend Aiden (Taylor Kinney – Chicago Fire), and a local guide, Sara goes looking for her sister but finds much more than she expected.
Now, the setting choice was a great one. Throughout the first act, the idea of a blurred line over traditional cultural acceptance of suicide in Japan is well-trodden. Although the forest is treated as more of a tourist attraction for its natural beauty, people still come there to “check out” rather than check it out and rangers even carry out secret “suicide watch” patrols to recover bodies or in some cases victims in state of indecision. It’s not glamorized or glorified, merely shown through the eyes of those forced to accept it as part of their world which is a fascinating idea. The Japanese Government does not permit filming in Aokigahara so the mountain foothills forest used was actually around Serbia’s Tara Mountain, and the scenery is frequently stunning. Debuting director Jason Zada pays much more attention and affection to showcasing his natural setting than the majority of horror directors, and that helps elevate this from being just another “something in the woods” horror film. Its natural features are also utilised well for some horror moments. Placing static apparitions amongst the long thin trees at night create some effective imagery for a “forest of ghosts” effect.
The setting is not the problem but to other S-words are: story and scares. For large parts of the film, the story is all but non-existent. The script gets Sara into the forest okay, but isn’t overly sure what to do with her next. The main focus tries to be on her inner psychological demons as the manifesting spirits use them against her but all we really get is revisiting her parent’s death, which quickly wears thin. Some of the mental tricks and plays on reality are good but a lot a far more shambolic with some scenes and sequences seemingly spliced in with no relevance or ramifications. The overall approach is familiar of Mike Flannigan’s outstanding Oculus but without anywhere near the same level of execution. For every clever moment, there are a handful of dull ones. Then, there are scares for which The Forest only has one in its repertoire: the jump-scare..... used over and over again to the point of losing all impact. Jump-scares start happening so often. There are levels of creepiness achieved by the setting but once the jump-scares have lost their power, the film becomes so incapable of scaring you it becomes a dull and tedious affair. The local guide Michi tries to bring in the unsettling and eerie but seems to have taken his English dialogue lessons from William Shatner, leaving his delivery the wrong kind of comical. It tries to liven things up with a few late twists (in a horror film?.... never!) but like a dwarf that missed the bus, it’s too little, too late.
Natalie Dormer has enticed to this film on the prospect of playing multiple roles and to her credit, she does that well despite the script and story limitations. In the double feature flashbacks, she delivers a clear sense of differentiation between the good reliable Sara and the emo free-spirited Jess. In both incarnations, she becomes a likeable heroine and tackles the emotional aspects of her role well. Taylor Kinney starts out well enough but doesn’t help himself as the film progresses. Things are supposed to become uncertain and ambiguous around his character but his performance turns one dimensional, destroying that effect and any delusions over his intentions. Eoin Macken is okay as Sara’s husband but in no way memorable.
So The Forest is a great idea for a horror film and setting that ultimately squanders it, and a great lead actress with terrible story and horror content. I guess Goyer missed those bits on Wikipedia. Some Natalie Dormer fans may enjoy seeing her in a less familiar role but otherwise, this forest is not a good place to get lost in.