Forests have always been like manna to horror movies. Just send in a bunch of clueless youths, mobile phones without signal and a source of imminent danger, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a script in which you just need to choose how will the characters meet their fate – be it at the hands of Jason Voorhees or through a deadly flesh-eating virus. In The Forest, the premise is more subtle yet much more frightening – especially since we’re talking about a real forest.
Aokigahara Forest, located at the northwest base of Mount Fuji (Japan), spans across approximately twelve square miles. It has has long been associated with death – in the nineteenth century, ubasute may have been practiced there, i.e. a practice where the elderly and the infirm were taken there to die. Some statistics of questionable accuracy seem to suggest the number of people committing suicide in Aokigahara Forest has been growing every year, although local sources stopped releasing official numbers in an attempt to decrease its association with suicide. Building on its reputation as “the suicide forest”, it’s said to be haunted by yürei (ghosts, for lack of a better translation) of those who died there, and who encourage the suicide of those entering the forest with a heavy heart.
A real-life scary story, this topic has already been the subject of several documentaries as well as books such as Seichō Matsumoto’s novel Kuroi Jukai (The Black Sea Of Trees) which brought Aokigahara Forest to the spotlight when it was published in the 1960, and movies such as The Forest, released in 2016 in the shape of the mass-produced, canned American supernatural thriller that only mainstream horror can come possibly come up with.
Think of a plot gleaming with potential, only for it to be thrown in the compost bin as a bland, boring script, resulting in a generic and predictable plot full of clichés, with no sense of atmosphere or character structure, mediocre performances and easy scares, following the exact same formulae and patterns as every other horror movie out there. This, my friend, is The Forest.
In this rather insipid story, Natalie Dormer (Game Of Thrones’ Margaery Tyrell) portrays Sara; I use the term portray loosely, as she looks the part but fails to deliver any hint of personality or general acting ability. Sara decides to go to Japan in search of her missing twin sister, Jess, who had previously moved there to teach English, and was last seen entering said “suicide forest”. It just strikes me as particularly lucky that this should happen to Sara, someone who apparently doesn’t work, but is rich enough to splurge out on a trip to Tokyo, stay in a hotel with a magnificent view of the Japanese capital, and is able to linger around for as long as she wants.
Once she decides to go to Aokigahara Forest, Sara is warned (cue: more cringe worthy interaction with the locals) to stay on the trail, as there’s a high probability of getting lost in the huge forest, not to mention running into the yürei. She meets journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney, Zero Dark Thirty) at a bar, who’s working for an Australian travel magazine planning to write an article about the forest – I’m not sure why this would be of particular interest to a magazine wanting its readership to stay alive. He agrees to help her in exchange for permission to write about her story. They are also assisted by Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), the token Japanese unofficial guide who just seems to go around looking for dead bodies and trying to help those who are thinking of killing themselves.
Once inside the woods, they find Jess’s empty tent and Sara promptly insists on spending the night there in case her sister returns; Aiden agrees to hang around but Michi, clearly the brightest of the three, will not spend a night in the forest for love nor money, but agrees to come back the folllowing day to fetch them. Of course (!) some sinister events are about to take place overnight, such as the appearance of the run-of-the-mill Japanese-schoolgirl-ghost warning Sara about Aiden’s dark intentions.
The following morning, the dynamic duo realise they’re lost. Sara becomes increasingly paranoid, terrified by visions and voices, and falling prey to the supernatural powers at play that attempt to lure her into taking her own life, using her childhood memories and even her missing sister as bait. If you think Sara’s going to have to face a lot of crap, don’t worry, it’s still not as bad as the amount of shit you’ll have to put up with through the rest of the story in which everything goes down in the most predictable way possible as the filmmakers try to blend Hollywood terror with J-horror culture, mixing twin sisters with telepathic connection and schoolgirl ghost classics, slipping into a vomit-inducing ending.
The Forest fails in all possible ways a horror movie could. It’s not frightening, there isn’t any tension build-up or claustrophobia, nor even the obvious fear and despair you’d expect from getting lost in a supposedly haunted forest; it doesn’t generate any empathy towards the characters. Not even the (rare) jump scare is able to draw a slight jump off the sofa for the horror movie initiate. Apparently some Spanish cinemas had a marketing thing going on whereas they gave viewers a bracelet that monitored their heart rate while watching the movie. My guess is that idea probably fell flat on its face, since the scares are so far and few. For those who watched the trailer and thought it might contain some interesting scenes – I’ll tell you now you’ll probably find a lot of them were deleted from the film, such as the one where Sara is being dragged into the ground by a bunch of hands à la Drag Me To Hell.
To mention one redeeming feature, I can say that the photography work is quite interesting, both in the way it captures the bright nighttime Tokyo as well as the interior of the dense forest, whose scenes were actually filmed in Serbia, as filming in Aokigahara Forest isn’t actually permitted. Rookie Jason Zada‘s direction work is emotionless and irregular, but the burden of guilt mustn’t fall on his shoulders alone, since the six-handed writing by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai doesn’t help at all, making the script the true evil in this film, more than any yürei or evil forest. To top off the tragedy, it’s worth mentioning that The Forest was also produced by David S. Goyer, responsible for quite the array of awful movies himself.
What really irks me the most is seeing an environment as rich as the Aokigahara Forest being shown under such a bland light; the script could’ve focused so much more on psychological terror, yet it chose not to. It was even more of a disappointment than The Sea Of Trees (2015, Dir. Gus Van Sant). I’m still hoping to see a movie about this forest with tension and fright to match, and preferably a twisted ending to polish it off in the dignified manner it deserves.
Top quote: “You take the tent when you get tired. I’ll stay out here by the fire. Avoid any awkwardness.” AKA no one got paid enough to bonk in this movie.
Rating: In the end, you’ll kind of want to head off to Aokigahara yourself…