“The Forest” – Forests make terrific settings for horror films.
First of all, no artificial light exists in the wilderness, and insects, animals and the wind provide plenty of creepy noises that go “bump” in the night. Plus, when trouble does arrive, many times the film’s protagonists have very few modern-day resources available to help. Speaking of help, lightly-staffed police stations always seem to sit about 30 minutes away, and transportation options – to get away from a menacing antagonist – usually are limited. Also, sparsely-populated areas inherently eliminate the entire safety in numbers concept.
In “The Forest”, the filmmakers smartly chose the Aokigahara Forest, near the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan as a creepy setting for this horror movie. This mammoth woodland area certainly feels isolated from civilization and safe harbor, and the story involves Sara (Natalie Dormer) as a twin who ordinarily swims in the safe harbors of life. She lives a comfortable lifestyle with her husband, but her identical twin sister, Jess (Dormer), leads a troubled existence. Sara routinely needs to bail Jess out of various jams, but her twinlike supernatural sensors are now rising into overdrive: Sara discovers her sis is missing in Japan and naturally jumps on the next plane to Tokyo to fetch her.
With director Jason Zada’s movie set in Tokyo, he does place the audience out of its immediate comfort zone. We get a “Lost in Translation”-like feel in the beginning of the picture. Sara is stranger in a strange land and impressed with the massive size of the city coupled with its eccentric red lights which blink on the top of every skyscraper. She travels, however, from the concrete jungle of Tokyo to the place where Jess allegedly wandered, the aforementioned Aokigahara Forest. Unfortunately, the locals explain that no one goes off the paths of this forest unless they wish to commit suicide, and now, Sara’s trip becomes a rescue mission.
Zada then sends Sara into the secluded forest, but not before nearby residents repeatedly warn her why the forest is dangerous and how the forest will play on her fears.
From the audience’s perspective, knowing why is not an issue, but, unfortunately, knowing how is.
Most regrettably, the movie completely gives away how the forest will scare Sara, and quite frankly, this key piece of information – which truly should have been withheld – takes away nearly all of the dramatic tension during her journey. I should have felt like Sara’s immersed companion. Instead, as an emotionally-distant observer, I watched the scares fall flat, while Sara marched through the supernatural terrain on foreign soil.
Now, in many other respects, the movie captures the right elements for a great horror film. The thickly-wooded landscape offers an endless maze of wrong turns and dead-ends, and the opportunities for strange noises and wandering, angry apparitions eagerly present themselves on the big screen. Dormer also holds her own when playing both twin sisters in a dual role, and shooting in a Japanese environment brings an edgy vibe.
Sadly, none of it matters, because other than a few jump scares, the movie – as previously explained – blows its chance to be scary. On the bright side, at least “The Forest” will not give me nightmares during my next camping trip, and that is quite an accomplishment, because forests make terrific settings for horror films.