Natalie Dormer in The Forest
This is the first review of 2016, so welcome to the Annual January Movie Sh*tshow! We’re kicking off the month with a really bad horror film starring Natalie Dormer called The Forest. What is it about? If you guessed a forest, you’re right! More specifically, it’s about the Aokigahara Forest, the so called “suicide forest”, in Japan, a real place where a lot of people have gone to die over the years, including last year, as people still flock to Aokigahara to kill themselves. Sounds like a great place to set a horror movie, right? Actually, no, it’s pretty tasteless and exploitative. The Forest made me wonder if the reason we have yet to see the Matthew McConaughey/Ken Watanabe film Sea of Trees, also about Aokigahara, is because it’s really hard to make a movie about the suicide forest that isn’t tasteless and exploitative.
Dormer stars as both Sara and Jess, a set of twins connected by special twin powers, so Sara knows when Jess is in trouble even though Jess is six thousand miles away in Japan. Is that how twin powers work? I dated a twin once and his brother never knew anything that was going on, so either I found the one defective set or else this movie is full of sh*t. I kind of think it might be the latter. Anyway, Sara goes to Japan to find and save her sister, even though the last place Jess was seen was heading into the Aokigahara Forest and we learn that Jess has a history of attempting suicide and has some mental health issues stemming from a traumatic childhood event. So literally the only reason Sara goes into the forest after Jess is because this movie has to happen.
Once in the forest the movie gets really dull, really fast. The Forest is just a series of jump scares—one of which is nothing more than an old person just standing around being old—and there’s no tension or particular craft to shaping these scares. Director Jason Zada, making his feature film debut, evokes some of the dubiously-iconic imagery of the real Aokigahara, such as the “No Entry” signs roping off a path, the colorful ropes and twine people use to mark their, um, ritual spots, and even the remains of a hanged man. But the ghosts are just generic faceless zombie types that don’t do anything but loom. Once, one of them gets kind of close to Sara. Scary!
There’s a little germ of something clever going on in a scene in which Sara recounts the death of her parents. As she describes her parents dying in a drunk driving crash, we see an entirely different seen unfolding, revealing that really, her father and mother died in a murder-suicide. There is actual tension in this scene, and the violence is handled in a restrained way that makes it legit creepy. So where is that throughout the rest of the movie? No idea. It’s like an actually effective horror director like James Wan or Scott Derrickson or Jennifer Kent stepped in for just that one scene.
There’s also a problem with Dormer—she’s not an effective lead. It could just be poor direction resulting in an awkward and stiff performance, and a shoddy script saddling her with an unlikeable character, but it could also be that she’s just not suited to the style of acting horror requires. Acting scared isn’t easy—which is why I wish more performances in horror movies got taken seriously, like Essie Davis’s outstanding work in The Babadook—and Dormer never manages to look scared. Mostly she just looks annoyed.
The Forest is not worth your money. If you want to be scared by the suicide forest, just image search “Aokigahara Forest” and give yourself nightmares looking at photos from the real place (Disclaimer: Don't actually do this unless you are prepared for some bleak sh-t). Otherwise, wait till February 19 when The Witch comes out. The Witch is one of my favorite films from TIFF, and it’s ACTUALLY SCARY. Horror movies released at this time of year are uniformly bad, but The Witch is an exception. So if you’re jonesing for something scary, just wait a few weeks then go see The Witch. It’s the only horror movie worth talking about.
Attached - Natalie Dormer at the Golden Globes on Sunday.
Steve Granitz/ Jason Merritt/ Michael Kovac/ Getty Images