“There’s a difference between being startled and being scared, kids.” -Dan Harmon
In The Forest, Sara (Natalie Dormer) is lured to Japan’s titular Aokigahara Forest when she finds out that her twin sister, Jess (also Dormer), has wandered into it and hasn’t been seen for days. Why worry so much about her going into a forest? This particular one is colloquially known as the Suicide Forest, as it’s where many people choose to end their lives. Once there, Sara finds that this place is more than just big, dark, and cold at night.
It’s hard to know where to start with this one, so let’s just start at the beginning. It opens well enough, with the setup of Sara having to leave her husband on a moment’s notice intercut with her arrival in Japan. The pacing is good and the lead performance by Dormer is strong – although early on she’s saddled with some creaky dialogue. Just past the thirty-minute mark, we are finally in the forest itself.
Up to this point, not much has happened which would make spines tingle or bones chill, save a nightmare scene featuring cheap startle gags. Finally, at nearly an hour in, the first genuinely creepy sequence happens, and one might think this is where things are going to really take off. Alas, they don’t. The plot moves forward at a steady enough pace, but from this point on it boils down almost exclusively to jump frights here and there, usually followed by someone falling down. As soon as the gag is played out, all sense of impending dread or creepiness vaporizes.
All the while, the actors are doing their best with the material. Dormer has been impressive in everything from The Tudors to her supporting turn in The Hunger Games series (she’s the one with the rad side shave haircut). Here, she’s fine, but the role just isn’t all that interesting. In the dialogue-heavy scenes where we learn more about her past and her relationship with her sister, she makes the most of somewhat clunky writing. The supporting players are all solid, as well. In particular, Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Michi, the guide who takes Sara into the woods, gave his role a great degree of depth with the few scenes he had. Rina Takasaki also makes her mark with a small part as a schoolgirl whom Sara meets in the depths of the Aokigahara. The part is fairly one-note, as written, but Takasaki has an incredibly expressive face and voice that actually made this character fun to watch.
Much has been made about the film being culturally tone deaf and downright insulting to the fact that the Suicide Forest is a tragic part of current Japanese culture, not an historical relic from centuries past. I see the point here, but horror movies are often set in real places where tragedies have occurred (Chernobyl, for example). Giving people a true to life location or recent historical event can make these supernatural things seem more plausible, and therefore scarier. Here, though, the story becomes so centered around running from spooky sounds and visions in the woods that the real-life location is made all but irrelevant. People repeatedly tell Sara that the woods are haunted by yurei, which are similar to but different from ghosts, if a woman in a small role is to be believed. True, this element is culturally specific to Japan. However, this film could have easily been adapted to take place in any other creepy forest in the world and it wouldn’t have made any real difference to the plot. That said, I didn’t find that the film made light of the topic of suicide. Jess is shown to be a deeply troubled person who has had recurring mental and emotional issues all her life, not someone who is just sad about a breakup.
The film’s biggest flaw, and it’s not alone in the modern horror world, is its reliance almost solely on things that go bump or jump out from the darkness. As I referenced at the top of my review, there is a difference between being startled and being scared. If all of your fear in a movie comes from a jolt in a music cue or a CGI creature popping out of nowhere into the frame, then there probably wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into crafting the creepiness of the film. By the third act of The Forest, the jump scare tactics were failing to even get a reaction from me.
The final nail in the film’s coffin is, in fact, the final frame of the movie. It is a moment that is so devoid of the terror it is desperately trying to conjure that it was hard to believe. I actually said out loud (to no one), “Oh come ooooon!” I’m not some tough-as-nails person who never gets scared by horror movies. I have an active imagination, often leading me to be more scared by films than I logically know I should be. I also don’t mind films taking their time to get to frightening moments (see my review of The Witch). Unlike that film, The Forest doesn’t make the most of its setting. It has none of the slow burn quality of Robert Eggers’ film, much of which also takes place in the deep, dark woods. In the end, neither the emotional content of the personal storyline, nor the creepiness of the supernatural elements come to fruition. It’s entertaining enough right until the end, but none of it stuck with me even until the following day.