Movie review: The Forest
Natalie Dormer takes a long walk in a forest full of strange fruit in Jason Zada’s Japanese take on Little Red Riding Hood
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Noriko Sakura, Taylor Kinney
Directed by: Jason Zada
Running time: 95 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
The minute you read the Wikipedia entry for the Aokigahara forest in Japan, you can see why the screenwriters were inspired: The 35-hectare forest at the foot of Mount Fuji is considered so dense no outside sounds penetrate through the thick woods. It’s also called “the suicide forest” because dozens of people take their own lives there every year.
It’s a creepy, beautiful, mythic place that people say is haunted. So it’s no surprise that other filmmakers have already mined the Aokigahara’s horror factor: Forest of the Living Dead, Grave Halloween and most recently The Sea of Trees, a Gus Van Sant film starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts that has yet to make an audible noise in North America since its premiere at Cannes last spring.
No doubt it’s waiting for this film to come, and go, as quickly as possible because The Forest only has one thing going for it, and it’s the forest. Lush, green and timeless, this small patch of Japanese geography conjures all the necessary primal fears you need for standard genre horror.
It’s big enough to get lost in, it has a whole network of underground ice caves, and a mythology of its own, complete with supernatural beings and demons rejected from hell.
All we need is a Little Red Riding Hood with a humanitarian cause, which is exactly what we find in Natalie Dormer’s Sara – a young woman who discovers her twin sister has disappeared in the Aokigahara.
Of course, Sara and Jess (the missing twin) were always close. They can feel each other inside. But a deep, dark secret put distance between them. Something happened when they were young, but we have to wait for the climax for all the details to spill out like so much arterial blood, because this is a bit of a slow-poker.
Relying more on mood than blood, special effects and frenetic action, first-time director Jason Zada makes a wise decision to turn The Forest into a psychological thriller. He puts Dormer (Game of Thrones) front and center, then strips her character down to primal emotions as she ventures through the woods looking for her missing sister.
The big device is audience assumption and identification. Sara does the same things most of us would do in her shoes, and that makes her reliable: We believe she is a decent conduit for the action, but in a forest without cell phone reception, signals get lost or distorted, and suddenly, Sara is starting to see things that freak her out.
The mental unraveling is expected and Dormer does a good job coming undone, which is why the movie is watchable. Not every horror movie features an ingénue who can actually act, so it’s a relief to watch someone scream and panic with believable conviction.
Dormer’s wide-eyed terror matches the whole Japanese-inspired look – as though Sailor Moon were inserted into a dark landscape painted on silk.
Zada exploits all the Japanese markers, from Mount Fuji’s impressive silhouette to the streets of Tokyo and the claustrophobic apartments. Even energy-efficient lighting timers are used to great effect as Sara walks down the hall of her hotel only to have the lights go out after a few minutes.
Most of the shrieks are generated in the forest, however, where things really do get tedious once we start walking around in circles. Sara doesn’t know if she should trust her hiking companion, she starts seeing things, and eventually convinces herself everyone around her is a demon.
And speaking of demons: I’m not sure what power Japanese schoolgirls in boyish uniforms have on the Japanese psyche, but it’s a deeply rooted fetish that suggests everything from repressed sexual desire to emotional immaturity – and it’s all over this movie.
It’s also as creepy as children who suddenly transform into devil-faced incubuses and old ladies with milky cataracts. Zada doesn’t leave any room for error. He includes all of the above to be on the safe side, ensuring The Forest gets lost in its own foliage.
The two things that come to its rescue are Dormer’s portrayal of twin American sisters and the looming sense of doom that even genre horror has to manufacture if it’s going to work.
We all remember the chill we got when we first watched Halloween and the slightly dislocated sense of place that came after reading Stephen King—the hint of the shadow world behind our own.
Zada conjures just enough of it to put you in the right mood, but The Forest never fully consummates its relationship with the viewer. We walk away from the whole mess feeling entirely unscathed. That will come as a relief to some viewers, but a significant disappointment to fans of hardcore horror.
THE EX-PRESS, January 9, 2016