The January movie has long had a reputation for being among the worst that Hollywood has to offer, as though everyone collectively acknowledges that they need a month to catch up on the glut of prestige offerings and awards hopefuls that hit at the end of December.
There are always exceptions of course, but unfortunately The Forest, a rotten horror film about twin sisters and the spooky Japanese woods where people go to kill themselves, is not one of them.
It’s rife with unbearable dialogue, cheap jump scares, and far too familiar imagery which makes the whole experience instantly forgettable.
The story starts when Sara (Natalie Dormer), a young, wealthy professional living with a blandly handsome husband (Eoin Macken), discovers that her expat twin sister has disappeared in a forest in Japan. This isn’t any forest, though. It’s Aokigahara, also known as the suicide forest. Everyone she talks to assures her that her sister is definitely dead by now.
But Sara knows better. In The Forest being a twin means that you have a spidey sense that your other half is around and living. There’s a buzz, or something, and one time when Jess (also played by Dormer) took too many pills, the hum stopped. That’s Sara knew something was wrong and knew to call the police to check on her. Fine, whatever.
So Sara hops on a plane to Japan to search for Jess in the spooky suicide forest. Her dreams and eventually visions get creepier the closer she gets. There are some elderly Japanese women around to warn her not to go into the forest, too – it’s haunted by the spirits of the dead, she’s too sad, and it’s too dangerous.
Thankfully that night at the bar, she meets a handsome American travel writer from Australia, Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who offers to let her accompany him and a park ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) into the forest. Michi does “off the books” treks through the woods to try to save people from killing themselves. And, of course, there things go crazy, especially after Sara decides to stay overnight.
This forest apparently really is popular among suicidal people – so much so that there’s a sign at the entrance urging visitors to think of their families. That fact on its own is truly horrifying and possibly worthy of a cinematic interpretation of why that is.
Here, it’s exploited for an unimaginative mishmash of silly horror objectives. For example, not only will the forest bring out any latent sadness, but the spirits there are also angry, vindictive and restless. And beware the bruised and battered Japanese girls wandering around in school uniforms.
Even Sara, a happy, well-adjusted adult with a horrific trauma in her past, is not immune to the powers of the suicide forest. A character’s descent into madness can be the stuff of cinematic gold, but this is both ridiculous and, at times, needlessly confusing.
Director Jason Zada in his feature debut shows some stylistic flair, but resorts to far too many scary movie clichés to make this a fun watch, including the requisite score laced with creepy little girls singing off in the distance.
Dormer, who is such a standout as the feisty Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones, manages to infuse a few moments with humor and zest, but Sara never really comes to life as a full character. It’s hard to tell whether that’s a problem with the writing or the performance. Kinney’s Aiden is similarly unremarkable.
Save yourself, and your money from The Forest, it’s pretty bad, even for a January release.
☆ (out of five)
Director: Jason Zada
Cast: Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken
Rated: PG-13 (disturbing thematic content and images)
Running time: 95 min.