The Woman in Black 2. Devil’s Due. Texas Chainsaw 3D. The Devil Inside. The Rite. The Unborn. Horror films released in January don’t have the best track record when it comes to quality, but while the majority leave a lot to be desired they can’t all be complete busts, right? I mean there’s Daybreakers and, well, parts of Mama were creepy I guess. This year’s entry in the January horror sweepstakes wisely leaves the devil behind as it takes viewers on a nightmare journey to a foreign land where it proceeds to waste one hell of a spectacular locale.
Sara (Natalie Dormer) wakes from a nightmare and feels that her twin sister, Jess (Dormer), is in trouble. The last Sara knew, Jess was trying to get her life back on track and was teaching English in Japan, but she can tell that something is wrong. A few phone calls later and she discovers that Jess apparently entered the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji and never returned. The locals believe she’s dead – they don’t call it the Suicide Forest for nothing – but Sara “knows” that her twin is still alive, flies to Japan, and heads into the haunted woods to find her.
The Aokigahara Forest is a real location, and its infamy as a final resting place for hundreds of depressed and lost souls is just as unfortunately genuine. Locals don’t enter as they’re taught from a young age about the forest’s past – the old and the sick were once led into the woods to be abandoned and left for dead – and its present as a prison for angry spirits. Instead it’s visitors from elsewhere in Japan and the world who enter the park, but not all of them exit it alive. This reality initially adds weight to the film, or at least to the idea of the film, as even a passing familiarity with depression or sadness is enough to turn these woods into a haunting experience.
Unfortunately though for both The Forest and its viewers, director Jason Zada and his three writers (Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, Ben Ketai) only tease that emotional terror before falling back permanently into the safety net of jump scares and dream sequences. Both get overworked here well past the point of numbing viewers to their effects, but it’s the jump scares that suggest Zada has entered some manner of competition to see just how many he can cram into 93 minutes.
They’re a poor man’s ploy when atmosphere and terror seem out of reach, and while none of them work well it’s telling that the two most effective involve living, breathing humans instead of the ghostly apparitions at the center of the film itself. They’re characters with no setup or payoff, people who appear out of nowhere to make audiences jump and then disappear again forever, and they scream of laziness and studio notes.
Story padding comes in the form of flashbacks that offer minimal glimpses into the characters and instead exist solely to allow us to see Dormer playing against herself. She’s fine in both roles, but we’re given nothing really to latch onto with either sister, no reason to care one way or the other as to their survival. Again, that may be pretty standard for American horror films, but a setting like this opens the doors to truly affecting possibilities, and again and again the film chooses the path of least resistance.
The only time it goes off that path – something the park’s signage and employees strongly recommend you don’t do – is with a potentially intriguing subplot that balances precariously between red herring and real threat. It’s somewhat silly on its face, but the film sells it hard before overplaying its hand and watching the whole thing collapse. Ideally this idea would have existed in a smaller, more dangerous form while allowing the oppressive and haunting nature of the forest itself to slowly pull both characters and viewers into its deadly grasp.
Like McDonald’s’ leveling of South American rain-forests to make room for grazing cattle, The Forest is something of a cinematic deforestation eliminating the atmosphere and dread to make room for sanitized scares. The end result is unsurprisingly unappealing.