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Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) arrives in Tokyo after getting a call from local police that her twin sister Jess (also played by Dormer) has gone missing from the school she teaches at. She was last seen walking into Aokigahara, a large patch of dense woods at the bottom of Mt. Fuji known as “Suicide Forest” where a number of people have gone in and ended their lives, legend claiming that spirits within the trees feed on their sadness. Signs tell visitors to stay on the path, like they were in a Bradbury novel. The information kiosk at the trailhead even has a basement with a collection of found bodies.
Sara is convinced that Jess is still alive and soon finds herself in the company of a handsome journalist named Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who puts her in touch with Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a ranger-type character who spends his days searching for the lost. Both try to convince her not to go in, especially Michi who says the forest will make her see things, make her do things, but finally agrees to escort her, as long they are out by nightfall. Of course there’s no way that will happen.
Directed by Jason Zada, in his debut, The Forest has a few things going for it, most notably the exterior night shots in the woods, which tap right into our primal fears, and there is a refreshing lack of generic horror movie jump scare music, mostly replaced by some effective (if not a little obvious) spectral echoes. Zada seems to know he’s not trying to change the world, so sticks steadfastly to what has worked before, giving some flair to the perfunctory running and haunting moments, though ‘flashlight’ movies, for which a lot of this relegates itself to, are really the simplest form of horror and do nothing but keep this all the more forgettable.
Where it truly fails is the story itself, which veers away from where it should. The twins share a tragedy in their past that certainly would scar any young person, the difference being that Jess kept her eyes open and Sara did not. This has somehow left Jess the more vulnerable, despondent and introspective of the two. She came to Japan to teach and ends up in Aokigahara, and as we learn bits of her history, are meant to suspect that she is suicidal. Sara tries to convince others that Jess is not, and that she would not be in the forest to kill herself, and so we have a smart introduction to an intriguing plot. But that’s where it stops. Ghosts appear and they attempt to lead Sara to Jess, though they seem menacing and play tricks, luring Sara to the edge of sanity. At every turn, she is witness to the horrors of the woods, and these visions slowly have her believing things are not what they seem, and in fact, has her believing the ones she came to trust are actually against her.
The Babadook (2014) was a film about depression, the creature a manifestation of that affliction. It was a horror movie in presentation, but was far, far more in story. The Forest wants to be about suicide, and indeed, by the film’s inevitable twist, it flips our understanding of who is suicidal and what it means, but it comes as no surprise and is squandered by a third act that pointlessly aims to make it all too confusing. Rivers change direction, faces appear and disappear, hallucinations come and go, ghosts jump from shadows but then do nothing. The film takes no care in understanding this emotional state, instead treating the ‘demons’ who haunt a person’s past like actual demons. And while that metaphor is certainly justifiable, and one reason by The Babadook works so well, here it is superficial and exploitive, designed as cheap scares rather than interesting character development.
Aokigahara is a very real place and the statistics are disturbing. Numbers are no longer made public as the suicides increase, and there is something off about a film that seems to play into that, though The Forest is by no means the first, as a litany of books, films, songs and games have used the destination as inspiration. Again, though, The Forest isn’t about suicide, even as it aggressively tries wedging it into the final moments. While it could have made something substantial about that, it doesn’t, putting more stock in rehashing Japanese horror tropes, generic see-through plot contrivances (dreams and ‘connected’ twins are just two of the worst offenders) and culture shock than anything psychologically satisfying. This is one walk in the woods to avoid.
Director: Jason Zada
Writers: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell
Stars: Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Yukiyoshi Ozawa
Language: English, Japanese