The Forest CineMarter Banner

Directed by Jason Zada. Produced by David S. Goyer, David Linde, and Tory Metzger. Written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai. Release date: January 8, 2016.

For avid moviegoers, the start of a new year means enduring a couple of months of films that, historically speaking, are not good. The first wide-release of the year, at least for the last little while, is a PG-13 horror movie that’s not good and that the studio has no faith in, but is released here both to signal the beginning of the cinematic slump as well as to try to turn a profit while there’s no competition. This year, we’ve got The Forest from Universal.

The story is as simple as they come. Sara (Natalie Dormer) has a twin sister, Jess, who is missing. Jess was last seen entering the Aokigahara Forest in Japan, which also goes by another name: “The Suicide Forest.” People go there to kill themselves. But thanks to some magical twin power, Sara knows that her sister is still alive, so she sets out on a quest to track her down. Guided by Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a writer, and Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), she enters the forest. She spends the rest of the movie wandering around, often times without either of these people, trying to locate her sister. Oh, and sometimes ghosts go “boo!” to give us the requisite number of jump startles.

The Forest CineMarter #1

The idea here is that the forest itself will cause you to hallucinate, and people who go in there with sadness in their hearts will be lured into killing themselves. So the forest is greedy? It’s not enough that lots of people instinctively go there to end their lives; it has to trick even more into doing it? Okay, fine. So, we get hallucinations and paranoia from our lead, which means she trusts nobody, doesn’t know if what she’s seeing is real or fabricated, and gets to scream a whole lot.

For a film that wants to delve deep into the psyche of Sara, The Forest does a pretty crummy job attempting to do so. In order for its horror to work, we need to understand how our protagonist is thinking and what, deep down, drives her. The Forest is too focused on having things jump out and startle us. It does it randomly just a few minutes in – before we’re even close to the forest – and doesn’t let up until the credits start to roll. Yes, there’s even the final right-before-we-end jump startle, the likes of which are found in every Blumhouse horror project. A machine could’ve made The Forest; it feels that mechanical.

The Forest is a bland ghost story that feels like what you would get if you crossed The Grudge remake and The Blair Witch Project – but worse than that combination should make.

Aokigahara is a real forest, one with significant cultural value and mythology behind it. None of that matters to this movie. We skip over most of that so that we can rush into it and get “scared” by the various ghosts, whom we’re explicitly told are not real, but are supposed to be afraid of anyway. Why? Because Sara screams and runs away, and because the film she’s in gets real quiet before a loud sound and a sharp camera movement reveals something – anything – and, therefore, it’s scary.

Near the end, there are twists and revelations that may or may not surprise you, but they don’t amount to anything because of the lack of depth to these characters. Almost everything Sara exposits is about her sister, meaning we get to know little about her. Aiden isn’t any better; he gets the bonus of the film, at times, trying to paint him as a villain and a liar, so we don’t even know what he tells us is the truth. The final ten minutes or so are also so clumsily handled that they take you right out of the experience.

There are a few decent aspects to The Forest, and they should be highlighted. Whenever the film follows through on its premise – a forest whose hallucinations will trick people into killing themselves – it’s interesting. That only happens twice, though. Natalie Dormer makes for a sympathetic enough scream queen but doesn’t get to do much beyond running and screaming. Mattias Troelstrup cinematography is better than your average horror film, and the score – when not setting up for a jump startle – is good. None of these are enough to save the film, but at least you can tell there was an effort in these areas.

Do you know what else might’ve made The Forest work? There are hints at a repression and depression in Sara’s mind, and if the film wanted to explore those – using the spirits as a visual metaphor to overcome – it might’ve felt like the film was about something. At times, it looked as if The Forest wanted to take that path, but it cops out. Director Jason Zada is making his feature-film directorial debut here, and one has to wonder if that general inexperience kept him from taking that sort of leap into more interesting territory. Or maybe it was the fault of the three(!) screenwriters? Regardless, a potentially interesting premise was turned into a generic film.

The Forest is a bland ghost story that feels like what you would get if you crossed The Grudge remake and The Blair Witch Project – but worse than that combination should make. An American goes to Japan in search of someone in a forest, and then jump startles happen for the rest of the film. This one had the potential to be more interesting, but for one reason or another, decided to take the safe, mechanical, and generic route. Natalie Dormer is fine, the cinematography is above-average, and the score is lovely. Those things are all the film has going for it, and they’re not enough to even come close to making it worthwhile.

Bottom Line: It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that The Forest isn’t a good movie. The surprise comes from a surprisingly decent premise that just wasn’t explored anywhere close to as well as it could have been to succeed.

Recommendation: If you have a thing for jump startles, have at it. If they grow tiresome quickly for you, skip it.



If you want more of Matthew “Marter” Parkinson, you can follow him on the Twitter @Martertweet and check out his weekly movie podcast.

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