January is usually a dead zone for movies. While the previous year's Oscar bait lingers in theaters a little while longer, schlocky movies start popping up at the multiplex. If you're going to see something outside of Academy Award territory, you could do far worse than The Forest.
The film has a promising premise. It follows a young woman (Natalie Dormer) as she looks for her missing twin sister in Japan's Aokigahara Forest — one of the world's most common sites for suicide. Authorities find as many as 100 bodies in the woods every year. Signs at the main trail urge suicidal visitors to contact the Suicide Prevention Association.
Throughout the first act, the solemn reality of the forest eerily looms over the film. And the filmmakers show great attention to detail in depicting defining characteristics of the legendary location — such as the trails of tape that some visitors leave behind in case they abandon their suicidal plans and need guidance back to safety. (The screenwriters clearly did their research.)
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As Dormer's character trudges deep into the forest, the film unfortunately grows shallow. It looks like we'll have to wait until Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees for a more emotional exploration of the notorious suicide site. The Forest certainly has its moments though.
The film does some interesting toying with the idea of twin siblings being spiritually connected — in the same way that souls are firmly rooted in the forest. And Dormer makes you feel the weight of her sister's presence in her heart. However, that emotional heft quickly fades away in the last act as the film essentially turns into a funhouse ride. Leaves rustle, skeletons pop out, ghostly figures float between the trees, etc.
Full disclosure: I'm a horror fanatic. I go to horror conventions and everything, drooling at the chance to meet even the genre’s bit players — like the Hare Krishna zombie from the original Dawn of the Dead. So, despite its January release — a time slot often reserved for lousy films — I was eager to see The Forest. It looked like a fun entry in the horror genre. But this is ultimately a better one to watch at home, preferably while you're curled up on the couch with some form of alcohol. Take a drink every time Dormer's character says she can feel her sister's presence in the woods.
This is a tough kind of film to review. It has an evocative setting and an intriguing premise. It's the kind of bland horror flick that leaves you daydreaming of more interesting nightmarish scenarios. The Forest is littered with breadcrumbs leading to a better film. Let's hope some other horror filmmakers find them.