Situated at the base of Mt. Fuji, the Aokigahara forest has become internationally infamous as a suicide hotspot, with over 100 bodies being retrieved from the ‘Sea of Trees’ each year. The forest has become a source of grisly fascination in recent years: it was the backdrop for the Gus Van Sant film Sea of Trees (2015) – which was famously booed at its Cannes press screening – the VICE documentary about Aokigahara has had over twelve million views on YouTube, and now we have the obligatory horror exploitation film.
Sara (Natalie Dormer) receives a call informing her that her troubled twin sister, Jess (also played by Dormer), is missing and was last seen entering the Aokigahara forest. Sara travels to Japan to find Jess, enlisting the help of reporter Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and park guide Michi (Yukiyoshu Ozawa). It will surprise few who see The Forest that the impetus for it came when producer David Goyer read the Aokigahara Wikipedia page. The film views the cultural weight surrounding the forest with an outsider’s eye, and doesn’t attempt to make use of the bounteous mythology the forest inspires.
We have some hurried exposition, then some staple ‘scary foreigners’ scenes, which ironically have a distinctly J-Horror flavour. Then we enter the forest, which is a checklist of ‘lost in the woods’ horror tropes, referencing everything from The Blair Witch Project (1999) to The Evil Dead (1981) to The Descent (2005) – which you do at your peril, as it remains the best horror film of the twenty-first century. Beyond a few effective jumps, the scare quotient of Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai’s screenplay is low. First-time director Jason Zada offers efficient shaky cam work, but fails to capture the eeriness that hangs over the forest.
Dormer has a future as a tough leading lady ahead of her, and she handles the physical demands of the role admirably, but she is required to be little more than a female in peril here. There is little opportunity for the twin dynamic to be played out within the film’s meagre running time, which makes one wonder why it was introduced in the first place. Like Brad Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries (2012), The Forest is an ethically dubious jumble of verisimilitude and fantasy. This could have been a taut chiller in the vein of Clouzot/Tournier/Franju, but the possibilities offered up by its premise are largely left unexplored in favour of sedate, predictable scares. If you are going to make something for the worst of reasons, it should at least successfully exploit the human tragedy at its core.
Watch the trailer here. Find Daniel Palmer on twitter at @mrdmpalmer.