There are a couple of different ways a horror film relates to its audience. The first is to go straight for the jugular. Films like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Poltergeist throw everything at you but the kitchen sink in order to terrify the piss out of you for an hour and a half. The second (which includes films like Psycho and The Sixth Sense) is a much slower burn, subtlety easing you in with minor scares and psychological torture until they hit you over the head with a twisted revelation in the last few minutes that make you go… WTF! The Forest, a movie that borders on being as generic as its title, wades uneasily into the latter, unable to find a suitable way to punch you in the gut at the very end.
Which isn’t to say The Forest doesn’t have an interesting final few minutes. However, the events leading up to the climactic revelation doesn’t support it enough to have the surprising impact it was going for. Because of this, what should have been mind-bending awesomeness is swallowed up by the depressing feeling that it wasn’t earned, that it was only devised because the filmmakers needed to tack on some type of shocking surprise to boost an otherwise mediocre film. This is never a good sign for any type of movie, but especially one that takes its sweet time to get to the meat of the horror itself, lamenting a little too often in its own attempt at cleverness.
The film has a strong setup for supporting the slow burn effect. Sara Price’s (Natalie Dormer) identical twin sister goes missing in the Aokigahara Forest in Japan —also known as the suicide forest for its high rate of suicides — and heads there to look for her. I’m a fan of supernatural horror, and love when that element is mixed with the psychological effects it might have on someone, so right from the start the idea intrigued me. It didn’t hurt basing the setting on a real-life location, either, as that only adds to the gripping and frightening nature. So it’s a little disappointing when it takes nearly half the film to finally get us into the forest of question, teasing us with a few building scares in the hotels where the tourists stay that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s the forest that’s supposedly haunted, so why are we subjected to five minutes of Sara walking down the hall of the hotel to be jump-scared by the sudden appearance of an old, haggard woman? We’re here to get into the forest, so get us there… quickly.
When Sara does finally get out to the forest, with the help of Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a untrustworthy reporter Sara met in a bar the night before, and Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a guide who goes into the forest on his own time for a sort of suicide watch, things start to generate some heat. Although there may be one too many times when Sara stares at some aspect of the forest for no other reason than to pretend like it means something, the psychological games the forest plays are interesting, and it isn’t long before I started wondering how the filmmakers were playing games with my own mind in the process. From the girl who tries to pull Sara away from Aiden to the changing flow of the river, each new puzzle piece is part of some twisted joke — that everything we know is going to pulled out from under us at some point for some major turn that we never saw coming but makes complete sense in the long run.
The question then becomes — is it worth it, and is it meaningful enough? The answer here, sadly, is no, mostly because the characters themselves just aren’t interesting enough. When you set-up a film where you must rely on just a handful of characters to support the narrative, those characters had better be worth hanging out with, or else the entire conceit falls apart. Sara and Aiden are both inexplicably ordinary. There’s nothing all that special about either one and they’re basically given the same personality, so there’s no real conflict until the effects of the forest come into play.
However, because it takes so long to get out into the forest, the filmmakers aren’t able to take enough time to build up the tension and capitalize on the supernatural nature of the forest before Sara begins to go off the rails. I understand that even the smallest crack can be exploited to create a giant fissure, but the way everything is conducted, it doesn’t make much sense for why questions come up in regards to their validity. And when the characters, which includes the forest itself, fail to be compelling enough to draw you in even deeper, when things go crazy, you just have to sit back and say — so what?
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Ride Along 2, Norm of the North and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.