The Forest isn’t a great movie. The audience I saw it with last night couldn’t keep quiet for more than five minutes at a time, their behavior regressing to a point where it became necessary (for them) to brainlessly comment on everything happening on screen (“she’s using her phone flashlight!” is a thing that was tragically said aloud at one point). I wasn’t blown away either, but I don’t think it’s the affront to theatrical horror some are selling it as.
It’s well shot. Authentic Japanese locales create more atmosphere than what’s found in your typical blue or sepia toned horror films. Once the action shifts to the woodsy locale, Serbia’s Tara National Forest becomes a stand-in for Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, but the movie makes decent use of its setting. There’s confusing geography, cavernous pitfalls, disappearing people with creepy smiles. Yeah, it’s typical, but not bad. Admittedly, we never get a proper sense of how dense this place is, and that’s because characters separate on more than one occasion and then manage to reconnect. This shouldn’t happen in a movie that sells its central location as an impenetrable nightmare, and it does so whenever it’s convenient to push the story forward.
It’s not always easy to tell where it’s going, though, and I liked that. Natalie Dormer goes to Japan in search of her missing twin sister. Some quick detective work reveals she’s gone off to die in Mt Fuji’s notorious Aokigahara Forest, where the duration of the movie takes place. The trailers sell this as a haunted forest movie, and The Forest definitely tries getting some mileage out of its real life subject. Bodies hang from trees, creepy school girls appear in the middle of the night, and Dormer even begins to hallucinate interactions with her sister. One of the things that works is its exploration of psychological horror, first with our very damaged heroine, who may be experiencing these things for real but may also be suffering from visions rooted in her own troubled past. There’s also the possibility of a human killer running around. For a while, the predominant threat in The Forest looks like it could go either way, and that uncertainty keeps interest from waning.
Aokigahara Forest preys on those who are emotionally vulnerable, and Dormer’s character(s) have no shortage of problems. She (and her twin) are plagued by a family tragedy, the actualities of which are kept off screen until late in the film. It’s easy to predict the “surprise” as soon as it’s mentioned, though, mostly because the vague flashback is punctuated by obvious sound design that renders it a dead giveaway.
Natalie Dormer perfectly inhabits her character–her large and expressive eyes doing most of the heavy lifting. There’s a mopey sadness that’s accomplished without mugging. True, she blows a few climactic moments with lethargic line delivery, but she’s engaging and interesting for 95% of the film, and The Forest would probably be nothing at all without her.
The other performance worth mentioning is Taylor Kinney’s amiable travelogue writer who just so happens to know a guy who can take them into Aokigahara Forest. Kinney’s got a tough role to some extent, because he’s supposed to be disarming without being completely trustworthy, and he nails that even as the movie sews unnecessarily explicit seeds of distrust. It would’ve been far more interesting if the uncertainty lived in his performance alone, but that’s perhaps expecting more than The Forest was primed to deliver.
The biggest problem with The Forest is its over-reliance on jump scares. They’re just everywhere. An old Japanese man slams the window of Dormer’s cab for no reason, an old woman lunges into the Argento-esque lighting of a hotel corridor only to be shown as completely dilapidated in the very next frame, and then there’s a constant glut of them once the film moves to its tituar location. And the less said about the terminally lame final shot, the better. It’s disappointing because the movie manages some creepy imagery that feels underused (the design of that one recurring corpse is pretty terrific).
For a while it looks like The Forest might be able to pull off a banner twist, but the climactic event happens rather casually and without resonance. As a friend pointed out via Twitter, the film’s outcome is spoiled by the TV spots for no other reason than the Gramercy marketing team couldn’t find a better hook. These movies almost always end on a downbeat note, so the ending isn’t very surprising. What’s disappointing is that with a little tweaking, the third act could’ve had a pretty solid payoff.
The Forest isn’t an arduous watch. It’s forgettable genre filmmaking 101, and I don’t think anyone’s surprised by that. If you’re going to see a horror film released in January, there’s risk involved and everybody knows it. For every Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (a decent installment in the floundering series) there’s a handful of Devil Insides. Despite the perfunctory execution, Dormer and the nifty locales make The Forest worth a visit on a very slow night as long as your expectations aren’t out of whack.