There is a trend in certain movies being released early on in a year that many movie fans and critics alike have picked up on in the past – it’s that horror movies released in the early quarter will not likely be very watchable. The Forest, which came out in January in the US, should therefore already be ringing alarm bells – however, I was willing to give an intriguing premise the benefit of the doubt. As it transpired, despite finding myself interested in the mythology it sets up, I really shouldn’t have been so eager.
The Forest is based around a woman named Sarah travelling to Japan to find her twin sister, Jess – both played by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, who performs well in a dual role – who has supposedly gone missing in the Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where people are said to wander into and eventually commit suicide. This is indeed a real forest – which just so happens to provide a rather nice setting for a horror movie of sorts. Sarah travels to Japan and learns more about the true nature of the forest, that it is said to possess bad spirits and that it has been known to drive those who wander off the path to experience horrific visions. Sarah meets a journalist in a bar who happens to be going into the forest with a guide the day after – once they get there, Sarah decides to stop overnight – and despite the guide’s wishes, both she and the journalist do so. From here, the horror begins.
I’ll not beat around the bush in advising that The Forest offers absolutely nothing new in terms of horror or scares, and when it does, it’s either in the form of a ‘jump’ or ‘cat scare’ (think of someone going ‘boo’ out of the darkness) – on two occasions, the movie attempts to frighten us with old people, and when it does choose to start throwing in ghouls and demons, it does so in such a cliched and ham-fisted manner that anyone expecting genuine scares leaves feeling slightly insulted.
The Forest harbours a fantastic premise – a great legend, a superb actress in Natalie Dormer and some genuinely wonderful scenery – there are all the pieces here for a genuinely unsettling movie that could have created a cult classic. However, what is most disappointing about this movie is that it is such a colossal waste of all of the above. The script is plodding and expositional for the most part, with characters barely developed beyond the lines that they almost seem to be reading from a page – Dormer’s characters are only so worthwhile in that she actually sells them to us, despite having been offered very little to work with – and, while it sets up a premise that is both intriguing and paced well in the first half, this does not forgive the downhill slalom of muddled jump scares and inexplicable character twists that are thrown in during the latter half – it is genuinely a case of the movie striding straight into cheap and nasty horror territory as soon as the forest itself gets dark.
The Forest - Official Trailer (Gramercy Pictures)
The Forest is not just infuriating for its poor direction and lacklustre script, but also for the lack of respect it offers its audience. It builds up a fascinating legend in the first half (which, admittedly, was acted and played out blunt enough for me to have read it off the back of a DVD cover), which then quickly descends into cliched horror run-around farce, borrowing elements from any number of well-trodden horror movies of the past ten-fifteen years, offering a few stark and out-of-place nods to J-Horror here and there (which really shouldn’t feel that awkward – it’s set in Japan, after all). The questions it asks are answered, you’ll be glad to know, but with such poor explanations and such sledgehammer execution that you’ll wonder why you were ever invested. The Forest possesses one of the worst endings, and indeed final shots, of any movie I have ever seen. If it has any accolade to live up to, it may as well be that.
The Forest wastes not only mythology, acting talent and story, but also fails to capture any great sort of tension or atmosphere. For the most part, it’s a dull walk through a dimly-lit woodland, and you’ll know you’re about to be scared when a dull, whining tone starts up and Sarah is looking into blackness. It might make you jump, but it won’t terrify you. Horror movies need to relearn what ‘scaring’ is – it’s not about saying ‘boo’, it’s about creating scenarios and characters that are too horrific to contemplate, and in some cases offering body horror that will make people genuinely afraid to continue eating. The Forest was labelled a PG-13 in the US, which explains why it’s light on visceral horror – but this isn’t the problem. The sound direction is conspicuously underwhelming, as is any focus on unique camera angles, lighting, and anything else likely to create genuine tension and intrigue. Once Sarah decides she’s staying in the forest, the only tension created is when we find ourselves counting down to when the next jump scare will happen.
The Forest is a colossal disappointment. While it tries to monopolize on a fascinating legend and has genuine promise early on, it degenerates into a clumsy, laughable farce of a horror movie, offering little other than morbid curiosity. The ends it ties up are done so in a hurried and insulting manner, leaving the audience with a final five minutes of movie that are unbelievably cliched and possess absolutely no subtlety or respect for its viewers. For sheer premise, promise and some technical aspects alone I have to award a star - but I would not advise watching The Forest when it is televised, let alone in cinemas or on DVD – unless you wish to come away considerably annoyed.