You know what’s really scary at your local Cineplex? Any movie that dares open while “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is setting box office record after box office record. Yet “The Forest” is doing just that, opening January 8 and assuming that after the big tent poles and Oscar bait of December, audiences might be ready for a smart scare or two from the horror genre. It’s a gamble that may not ensure boffo box office, but the calculation at least delivers on some well-done dread. “The Forest” is more moody than terrifying, but the film does imbue its scares with smarts, excellent production values, and a nervy performance from star Natalie Dormer.
The setting here is atypical for horror. Aokigahara Forest is a real forest at the northwest base of Mount Fiji in Japan known for its lush trees and disquieting peaceful aura, yet it’s a place where many go to kill themselves and has built a notorious reputation as the “suicide forest.” 54 of them took place there in 2010 alone. Thus, it makes for a pretty good start for a horror story about death and ghosts. It’s a fresh location and a different spin on your typical ‘haunted house.’
As the film begins, its main character Sara (Dormer) has a premonition about her twin sister Jess. She knows she’s traveled to Japan into the Aokigahara Forest, and something in her bones tells her that her sis is not okay. Jess has had a history of problems throughout her life, even a couple of suicide attempts, and Sara has always bailed her out or been her emotional rock. Thus, Sara heads to Japan to try to save her sibling one more time.
Warnings from the locals don’t scare her off. If anything, they embolden the courageous Sara’s desire to venture into the forest even more. She doesn’t believe in all the stories about ghosts and hallucinations that await those who dare tread into the shadowy reserve. Then, at a local hotel restaurant, she meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a reporter who’s doing a story on the forest. He volunteers to help her with her goals in exchange for telling her story in the magazine he works for. Sara is hesitant at first, as she realizes it’s a bit convenient that he’s also interested in the forest, speaks Japanese, and has in’s with the local park district authorities. Can she trust this stranger? Still, she’s bound and determined to save Jess, so she forges an uneasy partnership with him and treks into the forest with her new acquaintance as well as a local guide named Michi (Yukioshi Ozawa) who knows the in’s and out’s of the reserve.
Michi believes in all the ghost and goblin stories, as does Aiden, but their attempts to caution Sara fall on deaf ears, especially when she discovers Jess’s tent in the forest, along with clothing and personal effects that are definitely hers. The pending nightfall doesn’t scare her away, and she stubbornly announces she’s staying to greet Jess upon her return. The wise and cautious Michi heads back to safety but Aiden stays with her. Then night falls and all hell starts to break loose.
Soon, Sara is having visions like she was warned about. Or are they real? That is the question here and what makes it fun to watch and try to figure out. Sara ran into some schoolgirls coming out of the forest earlier in the day, but is that one left behind that she sees, or is it a spectral vision? Are all the noises calling out to her coming from Jess or another person? And is Aiden the good Samaritan he presents himself as or is there another agenda to his hanging around so diligently?
The lines blur between reality and fantasy here, and director Jason Zada does an excellent job of walking that fine line where they could be real or just very vivid images in Sara’s head. But sadly, none of that is as scary as it should be. Granted, the mood and locations instill plenty of dread, but it’s more moody than frightening. There are a couple of good jolts but mostly the film instills a subtle menace rather than legit thrills and chills.
Zada is talented though, and it shows in every frame of his film. He knows how to shoot, edit and gets sharp performances out of his cast, particularly Dormer and Kinney. Dormer is a strong actress who doesn’t mind imbuing her character with some unattractive qualities. She’s stubborn, often rude and holds her face in ways that are unflattering yet totally right in conveying fear, loathing or fatigue.
Kinney really impresses too. In a role that could have been a beefcake cipher, he manages to be amiable, heroic and even threatening at times. His character could be a charming sociopath who’s stalking women into the forest or maybe it’s another hallucination inside Sara’s head. The fact that she lies to Aiden about the key memory of her childhood concerning her parents’ death makes her unreliable heroine and that gives this movie a psychological focus that trumps any fears the audience might find in the forest. If anything, her psychosis is the the real scary thing here.
Zada builds his story well, but he fails to make the forest as ominous as it should be. The way it’s shot, the river waters look peaceful. Lush greens fill every frame. And even the quiet of night seems more tranquil than terrifying. Maybe what he is really suggesting is that the forest is an innocent bystander and that Sara’s drive and burgeoning madness are the real threats. Still, at some point, that forest should terrify. And it doesn’t.
Instead, the director relies on the tried and true tropes of too many Pacific Rim frighteners like spooky schoolgirls, fake scares, and ugly old people jumping at our heroine. I’m surprised there are as many false boo’s in this as there are. Zada is better than that, and his reliance on such fake-outs is irritating.
Perhaps what Zada and his screenwriters Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai are really after is more psychological thriller than straight-up horror. The true demons here are in Sara’s head. What she’s hearing, seeing and fearing are those hallucinations the locals warned her about. And when knives come out, blood is spilled, and bodies start to pile up, the only real villain here appears to be the headstrong young woman after her sister.
Thus, while not exactly delivering as an edge-of-your seat jump fest, “The Forest” still manages to trump most horror in the cinemas with its quality, thoughtfulness, smart actors and fresh setting. If only the filmmaker could look past the inherent beauty of Aokigahara more and truly see the forest for the trees. Those trees should be terrifying. But Dormer’s stubborn eyes scare more than any wicked tree branch here.