Written by: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai
Directed by: Jason Zada
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, and Stephanie Vogt
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Everyone comes here looking for a way out.
When making a movie titled The Forest, you should probably have one goal above all others: don’t make something that feels like it wanders off and gets lost in its own bullshit. The filmmakers behind this year’s annual January horror offering haven’t just failed at this—they’ve done it in such a way that they’ve practically invited critics to skewer it with forest-related barbs. I will spare any further because succumbing to this temptation would be to meet The Forest on its level. It would just be going through the expected routine, much like this film does every step of the way. That it can’t even make these steps in a straight line is even more maddening.
A zippy intro zigs and zags between past and present to stitch together the film’s premise: Sara (Natalie Dormer) has travelled to Japan to find her twin sister, who recently disappeared into Aokigahara Forest, a notorious sprawl that has become a haven for those seeking to commit suicide. Despite the locals’ insistence that no one should enter the haunted site, Sara remains adamant. She must find her sister because her sixth twin sense tells her that Jess is still alive (nevermind that she apparently needed a phone call from Japan to discover that something was wrong with Jess in the first place—I’m not sure how this twin magic works). Luckily for her, an American man writing for an Australian travel magazine (Taylor Kinney) comes to her rescue and offers to let her travel alongside his native guide as they trawl the forest for bodies. To nobody’s surprise—well, except for maybe these two—all of the ominous warnings are validated.
I know this sounds like The Forest glides on rails and that everything you expect to happen does, in fact, happen. This is more or less true: for the most part, you can chart its path, checking off every obligatory story beat and jump scare as they occur. It’s not exactly out to surprise. You have practically seen this several times before—if not within the past few years, then certainly over a decade ago, when this sort of film defined the early-aughts horror aesthetic. If it were released back then, it would have been lost in the shuffle alongside the likes of They, Darkness Falls, and The Boogeyman. I can only hope this isn’t an indication that someone is already nostalgic for that era.
However, this is not to say that The Forest doesn’t divert from time to time. Occasionally, it almost seems willing to stray from its preordained path and actually do something of interest, particularly whenever it attempts to explore Sara’s childhood trauma. While she explains that her parents died in a tragic car accident, her actual flashbacks reveal a more gruesome truth that’s left her with an unshakeable guilt. There are more than a few hints that we should be wary of her sanity, and some of the subtler ones even manage to unnerve, however so slightly. Panic sets in when it seems like the river’s flow has somehow changed directions, and it’s one of the few moments The Forest captures some genuine anxiety. Sometimes, being lost in the middle of the fucking woods is quite enough to inspire terror.
Nobody involved in making The Forest seems to agree. Subtlety is never a consistent option, not when the film has to put on a parade of assorted ghouls: spooky school girls with distracting CGI faces randomly appear, while ethereal voices swirl throughout, haunting Sara. An excursion to a cave is only an excuse to fling more of this at viewers. What could be a clever sequence involving a childhood Viewmaster is wasted in the service of a dumb, predictable gag. A retreat to a conveniently-placed cabin only results in typical shenanigans involving Kinney’s character, who is actually less a character and more a red-herring engineered from unfiltered douche-chills. He’s even named Aiden. Nobody named Aiden has ever been trustworthy, which is exactly why you should distrust anything about him—including the film’s insistence on making him seem so obviously suspicious.
With so many questions flitting about—“is Jess still alive? Is Sara losing her mind? Are there actually ghosts? Why is Aiden so creepy?”—it’s no surprise that The Forest gets tangled up in nonsense. The most interesting thread—Sara’s guilt and questionable sanity—is lost in the mess, leaving the serviceably plucky Dormer little to do besides wander through both the forest and Sara’s memories, the latter of which at least offers an unintentionally amusing moment. Casting Dormer in a dual role (she also briefly plays Jess in a couple of scenes) only to have her play a couple of dull, stock characters feels like a waste. These sisters’ relationship is one that’s discussed but never actually felt in any meaningful way, so the central tension falls flat—there’s no reason to care about Jess’s fate when the film itself doesn’t show much interest.
It’s almost amazing how blatant this is: once The Forest has sufficiently stranded both its characters and its audience in a tangle of knots, it leads them out with the most anticlimactic path imaginable. Occam’s Razor and all that shit, but this particular outcome is almost chuckle worthy. Just when the film seems to be untangling itself and building towards some kind of a grand reveal (I honestly thought there was at least fifteen minutes left!), it just up and quits, practically excusing itself from your existence because it has nothing better to do. I would not be at all surprised to learn that this final product has been edited down to the bone, cut down from a script that may have been more invested in characters (have I mentioned that Sara has a fiancé who shows up for all of two scenes?).
If nothing else, this means The Forest breezes right by as it tosses one last, predictable scare before its credits roll—at this point, a ghoulish face lunging towards the screen is like a final bow for prefabricated horror movies.
In that respect, The Forest is pretty much the ideal January horror movie, one that was assembled to roll off of the factory line early in the year, only to be completely forgotten almost instantly. In doing so, it wastes not only Dormer, but also a fantastic premise and locale. Aokigahara Forest has all the menace of a state park’s hiking trail, as it becomes the latest backdrop for a procession of lame scares and empty dread for audiences to sleepwalk through. It’s too bad The Forest doesn’t actually hail from 2004; if it did, it would probably be a remake of a superior Japanese original, at least. I wouldn’t mind if Japan decided to return the favor in this case.
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