"If you see something bad, it's not real, it's in your head." That's what Natalie Dormer's character Sarah repeats as the spirits of The Forest menace her. But it also might be what the creators were saying over and over as they greenlit the series of mistakes that come together in this lackluster January horror flick. Horror movies dropped off in the dead of winter are often the dregs in one respect or another (see: Paranormal Activity The Marked Ones or Woman in Black 2), whether that is because of a weak script, weak direction or just general weak sauce. January does not auger well for the horror genre and The Forest does not change that trend.
The story is pretty straightforward: Sarah--ably portrayed by Natalie Dormer who plays identical twins Sarah (the main character) and Jess (the troubled sister)--flies to Japan to rescue her twin sister from a forest where people are known to commit suicide. Sarah knows that Jess is alive through their connection as twins and enlists the help of the handsome but mysterious Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and his park ranger pal, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa).
No fewer than three characters tell Sarah to not go into the forest with sadness in her heart, otherwise the forest will play off of her insecurities and cause her to see things and do things. Possibly bad things. Naturally, that is exactly what happens. We are treated to a basic procedural plot into Sarah's past and a secret guilt that lies at the heart of her relationship with Jess. It's not actually all that shocking, but the moment of the reveal is surprisingly interesting due to Dormer's compelling performance and the way director Jason Zada cleverly juxtaposes her narration with a flashback.
As Sarah is confronted with her past she becomes increasingly suspicious of Aiden, who at best is using her story for his work and at worst may be complicit in Jess's disappearance. We follow Sarah through a series of events that may be supernatural or may just be her fears and anxieties. Things come to a head when Sarah and Aiden stay overnight in the forest. Truths are told, scares are jumped and we get a predictable ending. I won't spoil it, but you probably have a good idea of how things will unfold anyway.
Doing what it says on the tin, The Forest's principal location is a forest: Japan's Aokigahara Forest which give's the film a "based on a true story" mythos. Despite some initial scenes in Tokyo, the script seems to completely forget that the movie takes place in Japan. In fact, outside of the short Tokyo scenes, The Forest was largely filmed in Serbia (and in a studio/warehouse). This is a problem for the movie, but not in the way some have made it out to be.
Of course, The Forest served as the usual grist for the never-ending outrage mill for mishandling the delicate topic of suicide, particularly by using this actual location. But, however you feel about the optics, The Forest pays little homage to the actual locations and culture and that is where the ball was truly dropped. This story really could have taken place anywhere and the lack of place and sense of reality is the big problem because it shows a lack of care in constructing a feature story.
Zada competently executes the paint by numbers script and even constructs some genuinely creepy, if all-too-fleeting, moments and images. His direction falls down the worst in the opening and closing scenes, which are composed of odd cuts and injudicious under-cranking. But where things really fall apart is the story. It doesn't imagine its characters and its situation as anything more complex than a forty-four minute teleplay. The Forest resembles nothing more than a one-shot monster-of-the-week X-Files storyline played out over ninety minutes with all of the pacing and character problems that implies. And, naturally, it ends with a jump scare--because that's how God intended horror movies to end, apparently.
If you're looking for anything of substance you won't find it in The Forest, but, should you have been looking there in the first place?
A New Year's Resolution for Horror Film Makers:
Speaking of final jump scares. Horror movie producers, writers, studio executives, or whoever is responsible for tacking jump scares on to the ends of movies: please stop this madness.
Take a perfectly competent and actually pretty engaging horror film like Unfriended. In the very last seconds you rip the viewer out of the movie by inserting a cheap jump scare. After ninety minutes of Agatha Cristie-lite plotting bounded by the frame of a laptop monitor, you throw out your central conceit so the spooky ghost can jump at the screen.
You do it in a not-so-great movies like The Forest and you do it in a fantastic ones like Sinister. You are destroying the integrity of these movies and for what? What does that one last bullshit "scare" do other than say: "We don't respect this audience and we don't respect this film"?
For 2016, why don't you challenge yourselves? No more final jump scares. Let horror movies end where they end. Respect the story and respect the audience. Make it your #NewFearsResolution.