Location is everything when it comes to the atmosphere of a film, the Eifel tower or Trevi fountain brings an air of romance, the amazon has with it a sense of danger and adventure, and then there’s the Aokigahara Forest which can only illicit feelings of dread. The site of real world mythology the colloquially known ‘Suicide Forest’ is so dense and foreboding that it has a history of despondent people wandering in to become lost and take their own lives. It’s actually surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to leverage Japan’s dark forest, this year we get two films set there. The Forest is the story of Sara (Natalie Dormer) who travels to Japan after receiving a call from the local police that her twin sister Jess is presumed dead after being seen wandering into Aokigahara Forest alone. Once in Japan she meets a reporter from Australia, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who offers to take her into the forest with a park ranger to search for her sister. Once inside the lines of reality begin to blur as the forest begins to show it’s true nature and sheds some light on why and how it received it’s sinister reputation. It’s been a decade since the J-Horror phenomenon that was ushered in by The Ring (which is on it’s way back in the form of a reboot), so are we seeing the beginning of a resurgence or the last blip on the screen?
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Let’s not bury the lead, this is not the start of a resurgence…but the important part is, it could have been. Natalie Dormer shows surprising ability and range in the dual roles of Sara/Jess and is easily the best part in a movie that has more than one desirable trait (speaking of desirable, did I mention Natalie Dormer). Dormer puts everything into the role, something that most actors wouldn’t have bothered doing in a film that could be thought of as a throw-away January calendar filler. The flick benefits greatly from this, she makes you believe that you’re watching something worth seeing. I’m stopping myself from just listing the good qualities the movie exhibits because there’s one major step it’s missing. For a horror movie, they seemed to have glossed over the fear factor. Not much thought had to go in to it, with the setting and ingrained mythology they already had it should have been easy to craft a solid psychological horror with real scares that stayed with you. Instead they decided on sprinkling lazy jump scares sparsley throughout…it’s not just the generic nature of the scares it’s the lack of them as well. That being said the forest itself (though not shot in the actual Aokigahara forest) comes to life as it’s own co-star and provides an atmosphere like only the best cinematic settings can. It’s not the Overlook Hotel but it’s up there. Lastly there’s the audio, the sound department rarely gets a lot of love but if there’s one genre in which a good sound mixer can shine, it’s horror. What’s missed in good visual scares is almost made up for in the auditory assault, understated and ominous this is definitely the kind of film that will benefit from surround sound.
The thing about The Forest isn’t that it’s a bad movie, for a cold Friday night in January it will certainly fill an entertainment quotient (provided you’re not one of the 7 people who haven’t seen Star Wars yet), it’s that the pieces are there for what could have been a classic horror film. Imagine The Ring without the little touches that made it unforgettably creepy like the odd movement of Samara or the terrifying visuals of the tape itself, that’s what you have in The Forest. A film that does everything right except for the one thing it was supposed to do…scare you.