A young woman searches for her twin sister in a Japanese forest only to find herself surrounded by paranormal forces.
The first theatrical horror release of 2016 has arrived! But if The Forest is an example of the horror films we’re going to be subjected to in this brand spanking new year, then it’s gonna be a relatively scare free one.
Natalie Dormer plays identical twins Jess and Sara (Jess is blonde, Sara’s a brunette), and although they’ve chosen different paths for their individual lives, they share a emotional bond. When something happens to one of them, the other one can sense it. As the film begins, we learn that Sara has gone to Japan, ostensibly to teach English. But Sara has a history of depression, and has disappeared. She was last seen venturing into the Aokigahara forest, a 14 square mile area located just below the majestic Mount Fuji. Jess decides to travel to Japan to find her sister, but she learns that the forest has a disturbing history. Despite its beauty, it’s better known as the place where people go to commit suicide. Sara has tried to take her life twice before, but Jess hasn’t gotten the sense that something has happened to Sara, so she believes her to be alive.
Once Jess arrives in Japan, she meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a travel magazine writer who lives in Japan (and is fluent in the language). Once she tells her story to Aiden, they strike a deal in which he’ll help her search for Sara if he can write an article about it for his magazine. Aiden introduces Jess to Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a local guide who knows the forest very well, and the three of them venture into the forest in the hopes that they can find Sara. Despite numerous warnings about staying on the forest path, Jess convinces the others to go in a different direction to find her sister. A direction off the beaten path, where the trio should definitely not be. But they manage to find Sara’s tent, but Sara’s nowhere to be found. Although Michi tells her that the forest is not the best place to stay overnight, Jess decides to stay in the tent and wait for her sister to come back, Aiden decides to stay with her and Michi tells them both that he’ll return tomorrow to help them. Of course, Michi was right and both Jess and Aiden find themselves in a nightmarish situation deep in the forest, with visions of ghosts haunting them as they try to find Sara.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai, The Forest desperately wants to be a scary film, but the scares it produces are as mild as a cup of Chamomile tea. Director Jason Zada does a good job keeping the story on track, and with gorgeous cinematography from Mattias Troelstrup making everything look lush, the film is great to look at. But it feels like everyone is holding back, because The Forest has a very intriguing setup. One that should lead to a far scarier film than we get. Perhaps in an effort to remain respectful to the legend that Aokigahara forest has, the script doesn’t go for our throats. But if this is so then they wasted a great opportunity to create a truly frightening film. The film goes out of its way to remain respectful, and doesn’t exploit the legend of the forest. But then why even bother to set the film in a locale so rich with history, ugly as that history might be? As the film progresses, rather than trying to maintain the creepy atmosphere that he develops in the first third of the film, director Zada falls back on the typical jump scares that can be seen coming a mile away. Very disappointing.
But there are a few mild (if ultimately disappointing) scares to be found in this forest, courtesy of a trio of creepy old women and a disheveled schoolgirl (Rina Takasaki) who appears to want to help Jess, but she might just be a figment of Jess’ imagination. There are some odd touches in the film that just don’t seem to be believable, but since I know very little about Japanese culture – they just might be real. The main example of this is the visitors center located at the entrance of the forest which doubles as a makeshift morgue! It’s actually funny (but I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be) when Jess is happily told by the woman behind the counter that Sara is downstairs. She then proceeds to lead Jess to the morgue in the basement, full of shroud covered corpses waiting to be identified! But as ridiculous as this situation seems to be, it is one of the creepier scenes in the film.
At the very least, the actors are fully invested in the story and their characters. Dormer does a great job as both Jess and Sara, although there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between their characters other than their hair color. She lends a bit of a mean streak to Sara, and a softer touch to Jess that works for the most part. Kinney also does a good job as Aiden, although as soon as he turns up on screen you get the sensation that he isn’t exactly what he claims to be. Which leads to another issue I have with the film, it’s far too predictable. You can pretty much figure out exactly what’s going to happen in the film after about 20 minutes. Throw in a tragedy that happened to the twins as children that doesn’t exactly jibe with the way Jess remembers it, and you have a film that’s content to be as predictable as possible. Once again, very disappointing.
I didn’t dislike The Forest as much as it might sound I do. Like I said, the story has potential that gave me some hope in the beginning, although it ends up as unfulfilled potential. But it looks great, and Dormer leads a cast that gives it their all, so it ain’t all bad. But in the end, its predictability lays waste to what might’ve been a pretty effective scare fest.
The Forest – 2 out of 5 shrouds.