Being released in January is usually not a good sign for anything other than children’s movies. Early January and late August are often dumping grounds for movies the studios don’t believe have much potential for great critical or box office success. Naturally, this doesn’t apply for films that got limited releases in December to qualify for awards season then go wide after the first of the year like “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight.” One of this year’s orphans dumped at the doorstep of the New Year is “The Forest,” a low-budget horror flick starring Natalie Dormer from “The Hunger Games” series and “Game of Thrones.” A horror movie released two weeks after Christmas is Hollywood’s version of tossing a towel into the boxing ring when that corner’s fighter is hopelessly outmatched. Does “The Forest” stand a punchers chance?
Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) is concerned when she is informed by Japanese authorities her identical twin sister Jess, teaching English to students at a school in Tokyo, has gone into the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji and has not been seen in a couple of days. Aokigahara is known as a place where people go to commit suicide. Sara believes Jess is still alive because she can still feel her presence. She describes it as a sound too low to hear but she still is aware of it. The girls were raised by their grandmother after the tragic deaths of their parents in an auto accident. Sara flies to Japan and goes to the forest to look for Jess. The night before she begins her search, Sara meets travel journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) in the hotel bar. Aiden knows of a park worker named Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) who looks for people who have either committed suicide in the forest or are camping and still considering it. Aiden contacts Michi and he agrees to guide Sara through the forest to look for Jess. Aiden will come along as he plans on writing a story about the sisters for his magazine. Michi warns Sara the forest is filled with yurei or angry spirits. They prey upon the fears and sadness of the living and she should remember anything out of the ordinary she sees is in her head. Sara believes it’s all just superstition but soon begins experiencing strange occurrences.
The first of the film’s many sins is it isn’t very scary. While there are a couple of jump scares scattered throughout the film’s 90 minute or so running time they are few and far between. Director Jason Zada is capable of creating some spooky, dimly lit settings, allowing the building of music and the clichéd rumblings, rustlings, scratches and bumps of natural sound to pile onto each other until we are given a mild “Boo” and the letdown of knowing more underwhelming scares are likely to follow. Watching the film, one might think we are being lulled into a false sense of mundanity and will be blasted with the scariest scare to ever have appeared on film. Sadly, that theory is shot down as the movie lurches to its conclusion.
It wouldn’t be giving much away to say the story depends on Natalie Dormer’s Sara giving in to the paranoia and fear the forest is generating; however, the writers can’t seem to make up their minds about the various obstacles thrown in Sara’s way. The movie has the feel of one that was rewritten while on set with ideas thrown out and then shot based on what settings the crew could create. This makes the movie somewhat jerky with sections feeling like filler and not providing much to the story. There are also story elements that feel somewhat unnecessary and poorly thought out. Without giving too much away, a character suddenly appears providing tons of information Sara accepts without question. Granted Sara is desperate by this point and willing to believe anyone claiming to have information about Jess but a little critical thinking and skepticism from Sara could have opened up whole other avenues for possible frightening events. Instead, we are given a character so beaten down by her fear and sadness she is willing to accept any positive information as fact. The female character is easily misled while the male character keeps his cool and doesn’t appear susceptible to the pressures of the situation. It smells a bit stereotypical in its depiction of men and women.
Natalie Dormer is very good in the dual role of Sara and Jess. Despite being surrounded by a less than great movie, Dormer is convincing and sympathetic as Sara. We want the pair to be reunited so they can try to live the happy life the tragedy of their childhood seemed to take away from them. Taylor Kinney has the thankless job of trying to be the voice of reason and calm in a situation that is adverse to both. While his character is written a bit bland, Kinney is a likable presence on screen. We’re never quite sure what his true motivations are for helping Sara, but Aiden never appears to be a villain or using Sara for his own gain despite initially hitting on her in the hotel bar. I suppose Aiden is supposed to be the anchor to reality of Sara as she travels through this forest of despair. Again, it smacks of sexism in the portrayal of the characters but that isn’t the fault of the actors.
“The Forest” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and images. There are images of dead bodies both on slabs and hanging from a tree. There are some bloody injuries depicted with one showing maggots in a wound. There are also images of a murder/suicide as well as discussion of suicide. Foul language is scattered and mild.
While some don’t understand it, I love a good scary movie. The tingle of anticipation running up my spine as a character investigates a strange noise down a dark hallway and the sudden release of adrenaline as the ghost/monster/psychopath jumps out and attacks makes me feel alive! I relish those times in a darkened theatre with a packed house or a precious few waiting for the next explosion of fear and the equally strong wave of relief as I tell myself it’s just a movie. Unfortunately, “The Forest” didn’t fill me with either dread or joy as the images flickered on the screen. All I felt was a bit of boredom and a longing for the credits to start rolling so I could move on with my day. That is just about the opposite of how a horror/thriller should make you feel.