Set in a world where twins are psychically connected, The Forest is a horror movie about a woman trying to find her sister in Aokigahara forest.
Aokigahara forest is in Japan and is known as a place people go to commit suicide. When Jess goes missing during a school trip to the forest her Japanese colleagues and students assumes she’s dead, but her twin sister Sara is sure there’s still time to save her.
A lot of films use narration as a way to quickly establish the story and the main characters, but it’s lazy and denies the audience the chance to see who the characters are for themselves. The Forest doesn’t make this mistake and instead opens with intercut scenes showing Sara’s life and how she finds out her sister is missing. It only took a few minutes and by the end of it there was a clear sense of who Sara is as a character and what her relationship with her sister is like.
Natalie Dormer plays both Sara and Jess. For the most part, the story follows Sara, but she is surprisingly the character the audience knows the least about. There’s no mention of her having a career or even a hobby. Jess is the one who makes mistakes, she’s the one who travels, she works as a teacher in Japan and is haunted by something she saw as a child. It probably would have been more interesting to follow Jess instead of exploring her through Sara who never got any real exploration herself.
Lack of character development aside, Dormer’s performance was excellent. Sara was strong willed and likeable and her actions were mostly very believable. She wasn’t the stupid girl who runs upstairs while being chased by a serial killer, but she did become unraveled very quickly once she entered the forest. It was especially in your face when compared to Taylor Kinney’s character Aidan who managed to easily maintain his sanity despite being in the same situation as both Sara and Jess. The forest is supposed to pick on people who have sadness in their hearts, but considering how many people tell Sara she’d be crazy to leave the path it seems unlikely that anyone would be totally safe.
Some of the more creepy scenes take place before Sara actually gets to the forest, but they end up being wasted since she isn’t actually being haunted at that point. It does highlight that Sara probably isn’t in the best frame of mind since she’s clearly already afraid, but it was a let down when nothing in the actual forest was as eerie. Sara is told that the forest uses your sadness against you to make you kill yourself. This seemed like it meant the characters would be subjected to psychological torture until they commit suicide, but ended up meaning they would be tricked into thinking they were doing one thing when actually they were killing themselves and that’s just not as interesting a concept.
While in the forest, Sara runs into a Japanese school girl who she presumably believes was one of her sister’s students. The girl tells Sara not to trust Aidan because he knew her sister. This brief interaction starts Sara’s quick descent into madness. It’s fine, but later in the film she makes a discovery about the school girl yet still believes that Aidan is behind her sister’s disappearance. If the truth wasn’t so painfully obvious to the audience it would have made Kinney’s character feel more important to the central plot than he ends up being.
Unlike most horror films set in Japan, The Forest is not a remake of a Japanese movie. There were times when it was reminiscent of films that are, but mostly it seemed like a typical American horror movie with references to Japan. With a remake, they have the original film as a guide so they get all of the folklore right. Even though they explained that what’s in the forest isn’t a ghost and is actually some Japanese spirit who feeds off sadness, it just came across like any garden variety horror movie demon. At the end of the movie they seemed to bring in a second type of spirit that anyone who’s seen The Grudge will recognise, though it’s never directly said. It’s just quickly tacked onto the end without any explanation or logical reasoning.
For a while Japanese horror was a very popular genre, though the audience for it has decreased in recent years and The Forest is arriving pretty late to the party without bringing anything particularly new. Easily scared viewers may find a couple of scenes creepy, but not many. The film isn’t without charm and may make a nice entry point into the genre, but lack of real scares and some poor character choices holds the film back. Still, if you’re interested in Aokigahara forest and the myths surrounding it then there might be just enough here to hold your attention.