A young woman searches for her twin sister in a Japanese forest only to find herself surrounded by paranormal forces.
The vast majority of “The Forest” takes place deep within Aokigahara in Japan, also known as the ‘Suicide Forest’ or ‘Sea of Trees.’ It is very real and every year, people from all over the world visit this beautiful but unmistakably eerie and supernatural location to end their lives. It is 14 square miles of forest that lies at Mount Fuji’s northwest base and according to Japanese mythology, it has a historic association with demons and ghosts. With a backstory like that, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood stepped in to take full advantage.
After Sara (Natalie Dormer) is woken from a nightmare in which her identical twin sister Jess (also Natalie Dormer) is being chased and hunted by someone, or something unseen, she tries to get in touch with her but to no avail. Sara lives in the U.S. while Jess is an English teacher residing in Japan. After the authorities manage to get a hold of Sara, they inform her that Jess was last seen entering Aokigahara a few days prior and that they fear the worst. When they prove to be ineffective in helping her with her inquiry, she boards a plane and heads for Japan, determined to find Jess herself.
Along the way, she meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a travel journalist who is familiar with the forest and he offers to let her accompany he and his friend Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a park ranger who leads suicide patrols every few days. Heading out at first light, the trio make their way deep into the woods and eventually, as evening fast approaches, they discover Jess’ tent and her personal belongings. Convinced that she will return at any moment, Sara informs Aiden and Michi that she will stay there until Jess appears but Michi is adamant that they leave before nightfall and return in the morning.
When Sara stubbornly refuses, Aiden decides to stay and watch over her and Michi warns them both that if they begin seeing strange things, to remember that they’re not real, they’re only in their imaginations. And with those words of caution, he is gone.
But for Sara and Aiden, their night is just beginning. As darkness creeps over them, they begin hearing strange noises and seeing bizarre and unusual images and in no time, they are being chased through the woods by invisible forces. As the hours drag by, both parties begins to suspect the other is not who they say they are and the deeper into the woods they go, the more suspicious and untrusting they become of each other, unable to comprehend that the tormented souls in the forest are preying on them and their naivety.
The premise for “The Forest” is exceptional and I wonder why it’s taken this long for a film to be made about this location but even though the movie starts off well, by the second half, it slowly loses traction and succumbs to stereotypical and conventional scares. In one scene, Sara is running away from Aiden and she falls into an opening in the ground, which we discover is the entrance to an underground ice cave. When a young Japanese girl appears out of nowhere and informs Sara that Jess is waiting for her in the bowels of the subterrane, with very little hesitation, she takes off after her. Even when she comes to her senses and questions the girl on who she is and why her sister would be all the way down here, she glances at her with an evil grin and continues moving, Sara in tow.
I understand that in scary movies the protagonists, in most cases, women, sometimes have to do stupid things in order to get the audience riled up, like Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween,” dropping the knife after she thinks she’s killed Michael Myers, but here, Sara continuously stumbles from one scary situation to the next and never once does logic ever come into play. At one point, she begins to suspect that Aiden might be a serial killer and that he murdered Jess and while this element is pretty much preserved for the duration of the film, it begins to detract from the overall story that we started out with and the perfect MacGuffin, a haunted forest.
And with Michi’s parting words, that if they see something strange in the forest, it’s not real, it’s in their heads, this element is also pretty much forgotten about as both characters are devoid of practicality and levelheadedness, choosing theatrics and melodrama instead. Cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup captures the beauty of the film’s locale, which is epic in scale and executed with effortless grandeur and it’s just a pity the rest of the film couldn’t follow suit.
In theaters January 8th
For more info about James visit his website at www.IrishFilmCritic.com