The Forest is without a doubt the first terrible film of 2016. Built atop an intriguing premise and set in perhaps the spookiest place on Earth, the movie trades true terror for jump scares and tired genre tropes that make practically no sense in the context of the story being told. It’s as if a screenwriter came to Hollywood with an original idea, sold said idea, then sat back and allowed the buyer to gut their art, stuffing it instead with ideas found in countless other films that executed each thrill and chill far better than any sequence in this quickly forgettable mess.
Natalie Dormer is Sara, a late 20-something American who has spent the past several days trying to reach her twin sister, Jess (also Dormer), who was last seen entering Japan’s (in)famous Aokigahara Forest. The land, which lies around the base of Mount Fuji, is also known to people around the world as the “suicide forest.” For as long as anyone can remember, lonely and heartbroken people have entered the woods with plans to kill themselves, and none of them are ever seen alive again. Sara refuses to believe her sister would take her own life, despite knowing that she has attempted to do so at least two times prior, and swears she has an inexplicable connection to her twin that would tell her if something truly tragic had occurred. So, against all advice given to her by literally everyone she meets, Sara journeys across the ocean to retrieve her missing sibling.
The locals living near Aokigahara Forest want nothing to do with the yurei, or vindictive spirits, that live in the woods, so Sara must first find a guide before she begins her hunt for Jess. She finds the help she seeks in Aiden (Taylor Kinney), an expatriate who is writing an article on the forest for a travel magazine based out of Australia. Aiden offers Sara the chance to join him as he follows a local ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), on a walk through the forest the following day. He also warns her that the yurei are known for their trickery, and that their main targets are those who have sadness in their hearts, but Sara cares little for the ghost stories Aiden is trying to sell. She is far too concerned about Jess and whatever trouble she may be in to think much, if at all, about her own well being. Like every genre protagonist too overwhelmed by emotional turmoil to realize they may be putting themselves on a course toward disaster, Sara doesn’t fully grasp the terrifying prospects of her mission until it’s far too late, and by then she’s placed herself—not to mention Aiden—in dangerous territory.
You may not have seen The Forest yourself, but you don’t need to have seen as much as the film’s teaser trailer to guess what comes next. The spirits that were rumored to live in the woods are indeed there, and it takes literally seconds after Sara steps off the official path for the yurei to begin taunting her with visions of everything from creepy old ladies to silent Japanese school girls, insects under the skin, voices in the darkness, screams in the distance, stoic corpses and, of course, memories of her sister. Sara’s childhood was far more traumatic than she leads other characters to believe, and it was even worse for her sister. The spirits of the forest know this, as well as the regrets still weighing on Sara’s heart, and they use them to manipulate our lead and steer her away from everything she thought she could trust. It’s exactly what everyone told Sara would happen, yet she never seems to realize this fact, instead spiraling further and further down a misguided path until she reaches a point where she can no longer separate fact from fiction.
There is an honest mystery at the heart of The Forest, and if it had been explored then I believe the final product would have been something quite entertaining, but first-time feature director Jason Zada and his trio of screenwriters choose instead to riddle the film with tired horror imagery and at least a dozen underwhelming jump scares that offer nothing we haven’t seen before. From spooky children whose faces transform into monsters to a third act twist involving repressed childhood memories, The Forest is bursting with familiar ideas blended together the same way they’ve been used countless times before in a vain attempt to create something that feels new without actually offering anything unique. Furthermore, beyond a single traumatic experience in the sisters’ youth there is next to no reasoning for the film’s plot. What led Jess down this path? Why is she so disillusioned with life? Why wasn’t Sara more involved in her sister’s life prior to her disappearance? All or any of this information would have helped round out the story, but Zada and his team seem completely disinterested in developing their characters beyond the bare necessities.
To make matters worse, Dormer may be the worst scream queen lead to grace the silver screen since the female cast members of Ouija. Her ability to deliver dramatic lines in the opening scenes is never up for debate, but as tensions rise her ability to command any scene completely flatlines. Thankfully, Chicago Fire star Taylor Kinney is more than capable of tackling the role of Aiden, which demands he be both scared and boldly strong in equal measure. Aiden is essentially a stand-in for the audience, offering viewers a chance to take a journey with someone who is clearly losing their mind while trying to recover a lost loved one who is more than likely dead. It’s a role that requires confidence as well as compassion, and Kinney makes a strong argument for his own future in film by carrying the film when Dormer begins flailing around in bouts of depression-induced psychosis. If there is anything in this film worthy of praise, it’s Kinney and his performance.
The Forest is the kind of film where the poster promoting the movie is better than the film itself. It’s also a movie where one of the so-called “scares” involves a river changing the direction of its current. Yes, water flowing uphill one minute and downhill the next is intended to be scary, or at the very least unsettling. I’m convinced Zada and his team couldn’t buy a decent scare, but the poorly rendered CGI monsters that come and go during jump scares tells me that he or someone involved with the film’s production tried to do just that. Adding to this frustrating mess is Dormer, who seems confused about her character’s backstory and motivations throughout the film, and whose attempts at conveying a sense of terror barely registers with the viewer. Honestly, everyone involved in this film would be smart to pretend as if they never actually took part in this production. In fact, we should all pretend this movie doesn’t exist, because after you scrape away the lazy twists and familiar imagery there is nothing left except a powerful setting that will no doubt be used again (and again) in future, hopefully better, movies.