REVIEW — “The Forest”
In The Forest – amazingly not from Blumhouse Productions, instead arriving courtesy of Gramercy Pictures – nondescript Sarah (Natalie Dormer) heads off to Japan in pursuit of identical twin sister Jess (also Natalie Dormer), who has gone missing in the Aokigahara Forest. Isolated, lonely, and foreboding, the forest is a popular destination for sad and lost souls to commit suicide; an act which creates the tragic Yūrei – ghosts – or so say the superstitious locals. Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) assist the irrepressible Sarah in her quest to find her other half – who is alive, Sarah insists, a position she confidently never waivers from because of the nearly-psychic bond shared between the sisters. “We’re identical twins,” says Sarah, matter-of-factly. “If she were dead, I’d know.”
The 93 minute film moves at a brisk pace – two minutes in, Sarah has boarded a plane and landed in Tokyo in search of her missing sibling – which is both blessing and curse. The audience doesn’t receive much of a chance to get invested, and we rarely slow down to get to know the characters. Sarah spills her expository guts to reporter Aiden, the perfect lent ear to which she can express her tragic backstory. Sarah is an identical twin, and she “always looked away from” the darkness whereas her sister looked into it – that’s as much as we come to learn about her, despite there rarely being a moment when star Natalie Dormer isn’t onscreen.
As expected, The Forest indulges in the same kind of cheap jump scares that plague the modern horror film, which tend to be more startling than unsettling. To its credit, as cheap as the jump scares are, they’re infrequent. Though the majority of the film’s spooks come from fake outs and loud noise – and a lot of slowly walking to things or down dark hallways – The Forest doesn’t invest a lot of time in scaring its audience. The scares were infrequent and practically an afterthought and, despite being billed as a horror, this is a positive as the scares are telegraphed, cheap, generic, and ineffective. Instead, the most gripping and engaging part of The Forest lies in its missing person story – which comes with the added complication of a possible human threat.
Introduced into The Forest is the prospect that the seemingly paranormal events aren’t paranormal at all, and that the supernatural occurrences you encounter in the bowels of the forest are potentially all in your mind. As Sarah questions what is real and what is otherworldly, so, too, does the audience – we’re right there alongside her. The Forest is at its strongest when it focuses less on the ghost story and more on the missing person’s case, with Sarah’s solo investigation – and its resulting mystery – driving the action and the paranoia. A woman in a detached, remote forest investigating her sister’s disappearance set against a paranormal backdrop is intriguing and refreshing, until The Forest devolves into the same antics that drag down most modern horrors. By the end credits, all ambiguity – and fun – have dissolved. Of course, any horror film released into the cinematic dumping ground that is January wouldn’t be complete without a CGI creature lunging into the camera as one, final “scare” – a trademark that tends to leave audiences leaving theaters not with a scream, but with a rolling of the eyes.
The ruling on the field stands: Despite Natalie Dormer carrying the film on her capable shoulders, this otherwise engaging horror ends up falling to pieces by the end of its third act – the film becoming an unfortunate victim of not only cliches, but a lack of creativity. Instead of using its relatively unique setting and premise to mindf*ck the audience, as it should, The Forest ends up in a heap of misaligned parts from films that we’ve seen too many times before. This was a film that could, and should, have been better. Give The Forest a miss.