The backbone of ‘The Forest’s conception is probably more fascinating than the horror film in which the narrative is based upon. Some may be familiar with the backstory of the ‘real’ Forest and its disturbing legendary reputation. Of course the reference is reserved for Japan’s Aokigahara Forest (aka ‘Suicide Forest’) at the geographical base of Mount Fuji where historically this has been the morbid albeit visually stimulating resting place for that country’s despair-ridden segmented population to gravitate in hopes of ending their lives among the smothering trees and twisty hiking paths. Although the Aokigahara Forest (also nicknamed ‘The Sea of Tress’) acts as the last tranquil location for those desperate souls that want to meet their spiritual maker it also doubles as a scenic and sumptuous tourist attraction for outsiders that embrace the essence of such a colourfully green, wooded paradise. So given the compelling inspiration for such an intriguing and real-life model of a Japanese posh and plentiful tree trunk haven of exceptional beauty and mystery, then why does ‘The Forest’ not resonate with the convincing chills and thrills of a harried horror showcase meant to capture the true scary decadence of the Aokigahara Forest’s mystique?
The motivating myth behind the genuine hysterics of an Asian region that distinctively boasts the world’s second largest destination for suicidal tendencies should have been the selling point for this plodding, predictable doom-and-gloom chiller. Instead, ‘The Forest’ cannot seem to distinguish the light from its treacherous trees while delivering a hollow. horror-made shell of ghostly paranoia that never really musters up any majestic titillation beyond its basic boo-link manufacturing. ‘The Forest’s winning formula, as it seems, is to rely on flashbacks in its step-by-step storytelling, exhaustive close-up shots on the film’s photogenic lead Natalie Dormer from TV’s ‘Games Of Thrones’ (playing put-upon Sara and her twin sister simultaneously) and needling through the conventional creepy impulses that the movie routinely trots out in suggestive suspense mode.
First-time director Jason Zada has an interesting premise in which to work his grim-inducing hocus-pocus as his nightmarish narrative had the potential to raise the stakes of psychological warfare between weak-minded human psyche fragility and the deceptive mask of nature’s beautification. Zada and screenwriters Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca and Ben Katai never fluidly marry the concept of despair and detachment with the ominous histrionics of the ghoulish Aokigahara Forest folklore. The saddened study of loss and hopelessness in an exquisite and mystifying woodland of wonderment is sacrificed for a serviceable chiller that sputters in its generic sense of dread and devastation.
Dormer’s Sara Price is on a menacing mission to find her missing identical twin sibling Jess in the Far East. Jess had decided to take a trip to Japan. The word got out that poor Jess was last seen frequenting the notorious Aokigahara Forest, certainly not an encouraging sign for both the country’s natives and visiting outsiders deeply intrigued by the Timberland of Terror. In addition to Sara wandering about to locate the absent Jess, she must reconcile her personal demons and confront the ghosts, both the ones in her worried mindset and the evil-minded forest’s creation, as she seeks out her disappearing twin. Sara is against all odds to find her missing sibling in a wooded wasteland of hopelessness. Importantly, Sara must overcome her inner fears of depression, disillusionment and disorientation and poking around in the infamous Aokigahara is not helping matters in the least.
There is much that can be said about the lackluster presentation of ‘The Forest’. For starters, Dormer’s startled siren Sara is supposed to be the fearing female presence with a decent lifestyle back in the States although still tackling her traumatic baggage from a questionable upbringing. The audience does get the uncanny bond that Dormer’s twin sibs share in both triumph and tragedy. No doubt that Zada tries to position the emotional and mental bridge of his lookalike pretty protagonists and tailor a sordid background of frightening forethought that especially consumes the erratic Sara. Yet with all the set-up in place (Aokigahara’s spooky backstory, imperiled sisterhood, etc.), Zada seems to struggle in incorporating any convincing sizzle that can propel ‘The Forest’ into a cultural creepfest that really tantalizes.
Dormer’s Sara is reduced to frantically running into the shadowy woods and giving off jittery vibes to the spontaneous apparitions that pop in and out. Surprisingly, The Forest never seizes the moment to embrace the inherent value of the Aokigahara’s deadly hypnotism for life-ending finality. Perhaps even if basing this horror film on the real-life suicidal indignation of ‘Suicide Forest’, there probably would be major criticism about exploiting a Japanese tourist territory and its reprehensible reputation attached just to give a Hollywood horror showcase entertaining credibility. Still, this potential controversy might have given ‘The Forest’ an upgrade in its otherwise mechanical and sluggish execution.
‘The Forest’ tosses around a few supporting characters to surround Dormer’s damsel-in-distress Sara but to no real effect. Japanese tourist guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) join Sara in her quest to track down Jess. Michi, using common sense, abandons the remaining twosome after learning that Sara insists on sticking around the forbidden forest as the darkness of night approaches. Thus, this gives Aiden a fighting chance to intimately cozy up to the determined Sara while covering an expose on the tedious travels through the scenic but sinister woods. Of course, the introduction of the Yurei (the harrowing woods-based spirits that supposedly influence the suicidal urges of its doomed visitors) is in full force to badger the beleaguered Sara as they reinforce her embedded delusions.
Some bright spots do redeem ‘The Forest’s presentation such as Mattias Troelstrup’s crisp camerawork and the haunting and surreal visuals of strung-up stiff corpses hanging from the trees that accentuate the eeriness of lifeless souls lost in hidden pain. Otherwise, Zada’s thin and jittery payoff is nothing more than a toothless trek through the pseudo petrified Forest.
The Forest (2016)
1 hr. 35 mins.
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney and Yukiyoshi Ozawa
Directed by: Jason Zada
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Horror/Psychological Thriller
(c) Frank Ochieng 2016