The Forest (2016)
The Forrest is an initially promising horror-thriller that abandons every interesting possibility with every turn, becoming another interchangeably shortsighted and mediocre movie that only manages to scare an audience with how bad it becomes.
Sara (Natalie Dormer) is investigating the disappearance of her twin sister, Jess (also Dormer). Jess was working as a teacher in Tokyo when she visited the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji. This forest is nicknamed the “suicide forest” because of its reputation for being a favored location for Japanese citizens to kill themselves. Sara tracks down her sister to her campsite in the forest, with the help of a guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a journalist interested in writing her story. The guide stresses they must stay on the path at all costs and not trust the sounds they hear. There are plenty of unhappy spirits inside and they’re looking for permanent company.
The problem with dumb characters behaving stupidly is that it obliterates any investment the audience has in them, which is highly important in the horror and thriller genre. If you don’t care about the characters then you don’t care what happens next to them. With The Forest, we have characters that are wildly veering in the logistics of their decision-making that it becomes nigh impossible to care about what befalls them. They break the rules fairly early about staying on the path but the knowledge that everything they see is only a ghostly manifestation should register more. I understand that when you’re in the middle of a fraught experience that perhaps fear can cloud the mind, but perhaps you should start second-guessing things like lost Japanese schoolgirls miraculously finding you in the woods, or the fact that your childhood home is recreated in Japan. It’s scary, sure, but shouldn’t these characters no better? Also, the second-guessing of what is real causes Sara to view Aiden with great suspicion, except when she remarkable forgets. We’ll have a scene where she runs away from him out of paranoid fear, and then the next scene they’re back hiking through the woods together. It starts to feel like no two scenes connect or build off one another and The Forest is just an aimless sprint through random spooky genre grist that keep scaring our dimwitted characters.
There’s so much that is left unexplained, but not in some tantalizing way meant to provoke a greater sense of realism through ambiguity, but because the screenplay just can’t be bothered. The premise of The Forest is great and the setting should be mined for all the unsettling dread that it could manage. The little details of this unique place sink in, like the lines of rope and string that lead off to, presumably, suicide victims hoping to lead others to their fateful resting places. There’s something so brilliantly creepy about this place, and every length of rope that ventures deep into the woods has its own story and its own larger significance, symbolizing a life taken. Why does The Forest so rarely make use of the unique details of its setting? This location could have been any patch of woods with your standard unhappy ghosts to roam. That’s the biggest failure of the movie, wasting the potential of its special location and making it indistinguishable from hundreds of other cheap horror settings.
Let’s talk about some of those scares as well. The Forest abandons the unsettling atmosphere of its setting and the possibility of the fraying psychology of its character (coherent unraveling, I should say) for what amount to a relentless assault of cheap jump scares. The jump scare is the bottom of the barrel, utilizing sudden appearance to startle. It is ultimately empty and any movie that relies on a diet heavy on jump scares is essentially admitting that it could not build a tense environment on its own. It is admitting defeat, and that is what The Forest admits when it relies on a jump scare, I kid you not, like every five minutes. Oh no, something suddenly popped up and Sara jolted out of a dream. Oh no, something suddenly popped up and flew at the camera and Sara jolted out of a dream. Repeat as needed to pad the running time. It’s tiresome and leads to diminishing returns. The only way jump scares work is when they are unexpected. If you start to anticipate them then they lose all of their power and relevance.
As the movie continued running in one direction and then suddenly running in another, I was reminded of 2014’s Occulus. I wasn’t completely taken with that horror movie but it is far better than The Forest. The premise of Occulus involves a brother and sister trying to prove a cursed mirror is responsible for a history of murder. The mirror would play with the minds of its victims by putting them in false settings and scenarios, thus creating illusions to trick them into deadly behavior. The difficult part of Occulus was that you couldn’t trust what you were watching, which either forced the audience to pay more attention or to just give up and wait for the eventual reveals. The Forest is similar in that a good portion of its running time is a series of hallucinogenic tangents. Are there really maggots crawling under Sara’s skin? Is that water in the creek running the wrong way? It becomes frustrating when the characters don’t respond with nearly enough skepticism, especially when they’re fooled again and again. Occulus, while purposely hard to follow, was worth watching and ultimately felt well developed. The Forest feels lost in the woods.
Unless you’re a sucker for the kind of genre, there’s nothing that The Forest does well enough to warrant a theatrical viewing. It’s so frustrating because there are elements and potential there and the movie just continues to not care, falling back on the same-old same-old cheap jump scares and indistinguishable hackneyed genre tropes, losing sight of the inherent awe and fright of its special location. Dormer (HBO’s Game of Thrones) gives a suitably spooked performance but does little to stand out among the scenery. If you’re contemplating watching The Forest, just watch Occulus instead and be grateful.
Nate’s Grade: C-