Stars: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken
Writers: Ben Ketai and Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca
Director: Jason Zada
Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Release Date: January 8, 2016
In Japan, the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji is known both as “the Sea of Trees” and “the Suicide Forest.” In ages past, elderly and/or ailing people were left in the forest to die. More recently, it has become a destination for those seeking to end their lives, so much so that there are patrols specifically for the purpose of dissuading the still-living from killing themselves and retrieving the bodies of the dead.
Not too surprisingly, a lot of folklore has arisen around this. The forest is believed to be haunted by the spirits of those who have died there; visitors claim to have seen ghosts and unusual sights among the trees and there are signs warning tourists to stick to the path.
This seems like a perfectly sound basis for a horror film. Enter THE FOREST, directed by Jason Zada and written by Ben Ketai and Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca, based on a story idea by David S. Goyer. Natalie Dormer plays dual roles, generally upbeat and stable Sarah and her wilder twin Jess. When the Tokyo girls’ school where Jess is teaching calls to report her missing, Sarah is on the next flight to Japan. Despite being told that Jess has disappeared into the Aokigahara Forest, Sarah is positive her twin is still alive – they share a bond and Sarah is sure she would sense it if Jess had died.
As Sarah begins her quest, she is told many things about the forest. It wants to entrap visitors and those who are sad are especially susceptible to its lures; the forest plays tricks on the minds, making people see and do things, including harm to self and others; it is especially dangerous at night. At a bar on Mount Fuji, Sarah meets a fellow American, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who is friends with forest guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). The two men offer to help Sarah try to find Jess.
There are a lot of solid scares in THE FOREST, as well as some major natural beauty. There is a bit of location footage done in Tokyo and on Mount Fuji, but (as reported in the film’s production notes) filming is not permitted in the Aokigahara Forest. Serbia’s Tara National Park mostly plays the role of the haunted woods, and it is as lovely, impressive and spooky as one could wish.
Unfortunately, the script tries to outsmart itself in a few places. Seeking to continually surprise us, revelations are doled out in ways that dull their impact, until by the end, we are left feeling a bit cheated. There turns out to be a back story that is crucial to what happens to Sarah and Jess, but it’s provided in a way that, by the time we’re done piecing it all together, pulls us entirely inside our minds and viscerally out of the film. Also, Sarah is told so repeatedly of what to watch out for that, even though we know the forest’s effects (we’ve been told about them right along with her), her reactions nudge her towards being one of those characters who keeps doing the wrong thing in a horror movie.
Dormer is consistently watchable and credible as Sarah, and does a good job of making Jess a clearly different character. Kinney gives Aiden an easy charm and Ozawa conveys sincere and understandable alarm as the respectful Michi.
For all of its issues, THE FOREST is actually one of the better attempts to do an English-language Japanese-style horror film. It has ghosts, it has atmosphere, it’s well-acted and scary. Yes, it tries too hard in some respects, but it’s a respectable effort, and it works well enough to be worth watching.
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