The Aokigahara forest is a place of living nightmares. The Forest is its own kind of living nightmare. Long known to be unholy grounds for those at the end of their proverbial rope come to see themselves off, the mere existence of Japan’s inland Suicide Forest, a densely populated Sea of Trees at the northwestern base of Mount Fuji, is a haunting reminder of human desperation come home to roost. For decades, Japan’s denizens have chartered a grim pilgrimage to Aokigahara to commit suicide, leaving the forest littered with human remains. The annual amount of pseudo-seppuku that occurs here is so staggering that the park rangers have taken measures to curb the corpses piling up, including affixing the park with suicide prevention information and installing security cameras to monitor for suspected attemptees. Still yet, at least a hundred people will die here every year.
One might imagine that a supernatural horror movie filmed in this hauntingly verdant cemetery would be blessed with a certain nightmarish grace; that the setting alone would provide a devilish chill infecting the very celluloid the film was shot on. The Forest could not be less that movie. New director Jason Zada wasn’t even allowed to shoot in Aokigahara. No, the project was filmed outside the haunted forest, somewhere definitely less spooky in that it doesn’t house a roundtable of PO’ed ghosts. Hell, there wasn’t ever any celluloid to haunt in the first place (the film was shot digitally.)
The PG-13 rated clunker tells the story of Sara (Natalie Dormer), an American woman who goes searching for her twin sister, Jess (also Natalie Dormer), when she mysteriously disappears in the Aokigahara forest while on a school field trip. Now why grade-schoolers went on a field trip to a sanctuary for the wanna-be-dead, you got me. As with the rest of The Forest, it’s best to just turn your brain to its lowest possible processing speed. At that rate, you’ll only be running slightly ahead of it. With authorities suspecting Jess dead by her own hand, Sara still refuses to buy the theory that her sister would fling herself from life’s grasp, despite her sister’s somewhat more-than-casual flirtation with being a goth chick in 2015.
At a hotel on the outskirts of the forest – and please don’t question why there would be a hotel right outside a suicide forest – she meets travel writer Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who volunteers to assist her in finding Jess so long as she’s willing to loan out their story. Because writers literally have no souls. A falsely foreboding thread of “he’s more than meets the eye” attempts to lend tension to the proceedings but it’s all so forced and obvious that every last wanna-be impression is muted to a blanket of silence and dull stares.
Also there’s ghosts. Or is that Yūrei? Not that the distinction matters in any significant way at all. Zada is completely unable to cobble together the faintest thread of what makes one different from the other, aside from the Japanese-sounding name (authenticity points! Nice!) and ends up with in a soupy to-may-to, to-ma-to situation. But fear not because the whole plotline is chucked out with the bathwater anyways. Ironically enough, that’s just where this movie oughta go…If The Forest accomplishes anything of note, it is to cast serious doubt on Natalie Dormer’s once-promising ability to lead a film. As the sinuous Queen Margaery on Game of Thrones, Dormer is infectious; a seductive playmaker holding her own against great veteran thespians. In the pole position of The Forest, she’s shaky and ineffective. Bitchy and hollow. She’s as lifeless as the feature itself. And that’s saying something. There’s little to distinguish her Sara from her Jess aside from a cheap bottle of hair dye. And something about her parents killing themselves but I dunno. Who cares right?
Whether Dormer’s lagging work is the result of functioning from a wonky script (thank Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai for that) or Dormer just flailing in her first bonafide starring role, it’s somewhat unclear. What is clear however is that this was not the coming out party the Game of Thrones co-star must have been hoping for. Turns out that the January horror movie corner is indeed not where you want to pile your precious debut chips.
Now back to this dumb movie.
“You can’t trust what you see in the forest” is repeated ad-nauseam by just about every lackluster character that graces the screen at one point or another and yet not a one of them actually heeds these evidently crucial piece of advice. That every problem in the movie would be solved if its heroine just obeyed this one simple rule – to not believe everything she sees – makes the case for The Forest‘s ultimate offense: its total lack of anything near resembling intelligence. That’s why scripts are written in the first place. Someone page Antosca, Cornwell and Ketai.
Sure there’s a few flashes of tension out there in the forest of doom – mostly brought on by an admittedly eerie, giggly schoolgirl with a distinctive flavor of Japanese horror movie tropes; psychosexuality and all – but a few brief flashes of jitters can’t justify the 90 minute run time (a frame that feels infinitely longer when you’re actually watching it.) Our lead is very much of the damsel in distress persuasion, prone to falling and hurt herself, all the while screaming out in agony. And yet! she’ll be caught full-on sprinting the next scene. Twisted ankle (or whatever) or not. Thing is poor Dormer couldn’t sell pained to a marijuana “doctor”. I can guarantee that you on the other hand, twisted ankle or not, will find yourself wanting to race out of the theater at a full sprint. Right through the apparitions of the audience’s fast-waning interest.
CONCLUSION: A listless turd of a film, ‘The Forest’ lacks the requisite scares to qualify as a horror and is devoid of the necessary singular iota of intelligence required to work as a psychological thriller. So let’s call it what it is: an apathetic lark paralyzed by its own crazy lack of ambition.