Characters in “The Forest” are repeatedly told to not step off the path when venturing into the titular woods. But that doesn’t stop anyone, including those issuing the warning, from deliberately veering into the thicket almost immediately after entering the woods. The inconsistency between the previously established rule and the behavior of the characters isn’t due to a lack of internal logic; the filmmakers were merely trying to stir up a little apprehension early on, when nothing of consequence is happening. Unfortunately, they do so at the expense of what happens later.
Nothing of consequence happens for most of “The Forest.” The movie follows Sara, whose twin sister, Jess, has disappeared into a forest in Japan. She didn’t get lost in just any old forest, either, but Aokigahara Forest, a wooded area at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan known as a popular destination for the suicidal. Certain her sister didn’t die because she can sense she’s still alive, Sara hops on the next plane to the Land of the Rising Sun and makes her way to a hotel at the edge of the forest.
There, she meets a journalist from Australia who’s doing a travel piece and a Japanese guide who strongly suggests Sara stay out of the forest because of her depressed emotional state. Apparently, the angry spirits of the dead on the mountain will use her emotions to show her things that are not real, but are deeply upsetting and intended to manipulate her into killing herself.
The spirits must have an impressive range for these supernatural hijinks because Sara starts seeing things while she’s still at home. My theory is that the filmmakers realized the first 45 minutes of the movie is nothing but exposition leading up to Sara entering the forest, and decided they need to interject some (pointless) jump scares into the movie to keep viewers’ hearts’ beating. I’d describe these moments for you, but you’ll see them coming from a mile away.
Even after Sara enters the forest, nothing interesting happens until about the hour mark, when the spirits begin messing with her in earnest. I’d already given up on the film, and written a one-star review in my head, but the last 30 or so minutes are actually interesting. I was also blinded sided by the ending, which has a nice twist that stuck with me as I left the theater.
What else? There’s some beautiful, if slightly murky, footage of Tara Mountain in Serbia, which doubled as Aokigahara Forest during filming. Director Jason Zada uses fog and overhead shots to suggest the forest is a hidden world from which there is no escape. I also liked how he utilized subtle tricks to show Sara losing her grip on reality. In one scene, he changes the direction of a river along which Sara is walking, and in later sequences, he films harmless characters in a darker light as Sara begins to see them as a threat. Actress Natalie Dormer does nice work as the slowly unraveling Sara, and even gets screen time as Jess.
Unfortunately, most of the set pieces in “The Forest” add nothing to the story, but are there just for effect and to serve as filler. And, as I wrote earlier, there wasn’t a single scare I didn’t see approaching from a distance. While the ending was clever, it was too little, too late, and definitely not worth a trip to the cineplex.
People easily frightened by jump scares and viewers who find Japanese school girls disturbing will likely enjoy “The Forest,” but they can wait until the movie is available via streaming services without missing any essential part of the experience.
Two stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and images.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.