The Forest, a feature debut from Jason Zada, has received wide release and a good bit of hype over the past few months. In it, a young woman (Natalie Dormer) travels to Japan’s notorious suicide spot the Aokigahara forest, in search of her troubled twin.
Natalie Dormer is playing the character she was given well; it’s just a shame that that character is irritating as Hell. Sara is someone who turns her nose up at the superstitions of the Aokigahara forest and yet books a flight to Japan based on her psychic link to her sister. It’s a small gripe but one that becomes increasingly irritating considering the film wants us to sympathise with someone who’s woefully unaware. By the half hour mark, you won’t care what happens to her.
Zada’s interactive short film Take This Lollipop showed a real knack for getting under people’s skin, and The Houses October Built, which he wrote, is one of the more interesting handheld horror films of the past five years. It’s a shame then, that The Forest lacks much of the innovation Zada previously displayed. In terms of the fear factor, The Forest is disappointingly skimpy. Too many of the scares are cheap jumps, and a scene with a little girl pulling a CGI-enhanced spooky face is an early warning sign for clunky scare-tactics. That’s no to say there aren’t some good ideas here, though.
The Forest is at its best when creating subtle unease; fucking around with geography to disorientate, skewing camera angles or zooming in on grotesque nature for a near-hallucinatory experience. Production designer Kevin Phipps (who also worked on The Fifth Element, Sleepy Hollow, V for Vendetta) doesn’t impress as much as he did in Resident Evil: Retribution, but the film definitely benefits from a cohesive visual style and great set choices.
But there just isn’t enough of the good stuff. Even when Sara’s macabre memories begin leaking over into her present situation the film pulls dopey scares that undermine the strength of the ideas. A last minute twist feels like a last-ditch effort at emotional response, and though some great editing makes the scene satisfying to watch, it doesn’t elicit the response it should. Like The Other Side of the Door, The Forest is a boisterously western horror movie which wears its foreign setting like a (very thin) skin suit. Its scares are Hollywood scares and its cast are well-to-do white folks who get dragged into Hellish situations due to cultural ignorance. From the start, it’s difficult to get involved with something so insincere.
A wasted opportunity with a deep, dark, and fascinating setting, The Forest had a lot of potential but wastes it by clinging desperately to boring character dynamics and recycled scares.
Dir. Jason Zada
Stars: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken