After seeing Natalie Dormer hold together an entire series playing multiple roles in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (2020) (reviewed here), the prospect of seeing her play identical twins in a supernatural horror set in a Japanese forest seemed promising. Unfortunately The Forest (2016) is far less than the sum of its parts.
Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) receives a phone call from Japan telling her that her twin sister Jess (who has been working there as a teacher at a girls’ school) is missing believed dead. She was last seen heading into Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji, the world’s second most popular suicide spot and a location with a long-standing reputation for being haunted by yūrei. She meets Australian travel writer Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who has made arrangements to accompany park guide Michi (Ozawa Yukiyoshi) on his regular “suicide watch”, a foray into different areas of the forest to check on the assorted visitors, identify suicide risks and note the locations of bodies for retrieval by the park rangers. Aiden agrees to bring Sara along in exchange for an interview about her search. Locating Jess’ tent just as they were about to turn back for the day, Sara makes the ill-advised decision to wait for her sister (much to Michi’s distress) and Aiden decides to wait with her. Unsurprisingly, they end up ignoring Michi’s advice about not wandering off, and in the midst of being lost Sara begins to wonder whether she can trust Aiden.
Producer David S. Goyer (writer of the Blade movies and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) read about Aokigahara on Wikipedia and thought it would make a cool idea for a movie. He put together a rough outline and commissioned a script, which went through three separate hands (generally not a good sign): Ben Ketai (creator of thriller TV series Chosen), Sarah Cornwell (her first screen credit) and Nick Antosca (fresh off writing for the final season of Hannibal). Unfortunately not one of them appears to have brought anything particularly interesting to the table – the dialogue is bland and the story is unexceptional. Music video and advertising director Jason Zada is similarly unexciting as a first time feature director – there’s little sense of tension and the scares are mechanical. Very little effort has gone into making the yūrei look anything other than derivative and dull. Natalie Dormer is the most interesting performer present, but the script doesn’t allow her much to work with and there’s little to distinguish between the twin sisters beyond their hair colour and back story (although missing sister Jess has such little screen time that it’s difficult to tell). The best work comes from Mattias Troelstrup, one of Danish National Television’s leading documentary cinematographers – he does some good work with green lighting in a brief indoors scene early on, but the highlights of the movie are the occasional lingering close-up shots on elements of the forest (beautiful and eerie in a way which suggests the potential for a better film). Disappointingly, despite the longshots of Mount Fuji and all of the build-up surrounding the location’s lore, the actual location shoot took place in Serbia as filming in Aokigahara is forbidden by the Japanese government.
After viewing such a lacklustre film – not terrible, but decidedly average – I was intensely irritated by the supplementary featurette in which Goyer described it as “an elevated supernatural thriller”. The whole concept of “elevated horror” which had reared its head the previous year is simply another example of the contemptuous attitude some critics display towards genre movies. If they find themselves liking a particular film, that’s because it has somehow “transcended the genre” rather than being an indication of the breadth of scope within that genre. The concept of “elevated horror” as some new manifestation of the horror genre which deals with more serious concerns completely elides the extensive history of existing works dealing with those same concerns. In the case of The Forest I find the claim that this movie is in some way an elevated example of the genre to be particularly arrogant, since the processing of childhood trauma which Sara undergoes in the course of her experiences in the forest is so simplistic in its conception that the movie is at best an average example of its kind. At least in this case, this is a label that the film’s producer bestowed upon it for marketing purposes and by no means an accolade that was forthcoming from the reviewers, who were more lukewarm in their appraisal. Although the film was a commercial success, I doubt that it will be remembered with any great affection.