*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
It’s one thing for a horror movie to be based on a true story, it’s quite another for one to be based not on a story but a place, somewhere real you can visit and where it’s less about ghosts and spirits and more about the overwhelming weight of mental illness and pain. The real Aokigahara Forest may not be haunted like The Forest portrays it as, but there’s still something haunting about it, and had The Forest chosen this as a route to tell the story of this place, it may have been a more excellent movie. As a horror, there is a certain level of bone-chilling, but it feels like the filmmakers lost a bit of confidence in themselves as well.
Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) is called by her twin sister Jess’ job to let her know that they are filing a missing person’s report after Jess vanished into the Aokigahara Forest, commonly referred to as “The Suicide Forest”. Sara insists that Jess is not dead, feeling her through the connection that only twins can have, and travels to Japan to search for herself. She meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a travel journalist from Australia, who hooks her up with the park ranger Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) to take them into the forest. The deeper they go, the more they are surrounded by the paranormal forces that reside there, and Sara begins to understand the fear inspired in the locals and why those who have “sad hearts” should avoid the forest. As time goes on, Jess is not the only one who may need to be rescued from the place where people go to leave the world.
The Forest is directed by newbie Jason Zada, and I was actually very impressed to learn that this was his first film. The story on its face is somewhat interesting, a look into the devotion of family and fear of losing that family across continents, but the story could also be viewed in a deeper way. The Aokigahara Forest represents both the mystical and magical pieces of Japan’s history and the culture in which asking for help is still something that isn’t widely accepted and the mindset behind it. As Sara travels through the forest she is warned that those who have sadness in them are more susceptible to the tricks of the forest demons, that even those who travel their with the intent to merely sightsee can fall to the fear and unease that plagues the forest, and this seems like a complex metaphor for the human mind, especially one that is plagued by some sort of trouble. Most of this movie actually seems to be a more complex metaphor for mental illness or sadness and fear, making the “demons” that haunt Sara and Jess something from the mind, which not only hints at thought-provoking questions but causes the viewer confusion and a bit of paranoia as the film goes on (what is reality, what is just in their minds, what even is this place?).
Maybe it’s just because of how new the director is, or maybe someone got nervous halfway through filming, but The Forest stumbles a bit over the interesting and chilling nature of the movie by throwing in some cheap, cliche horror jump-scares. The Aokigahara Forest is creepy enough on its own, with the whispering and winds and general inability to recognize anything around, as well as the occasional feeling you’re being watched, but someone seemed to think that this wasn’t quite enough for this movie to be scary. There are very few jump scares that are actually scary, since you can usually see them coming from a mile away, but the ones in this movie are particularly jolting because they actually draw you out of the intensity and ambiance that the location and actors are doing a good job of setting up for us anyway. I still jump at jump scares- the sounds and sudden appearance of whatever it is still gets to me even when I see them coming- but then started laughing because of the weird homeless guy pounding on Dormer’s window rather than trying to psych myself up for the next scare. Next time, Zada, go with your gut- it seems like you got worried and tried to make the movie more like other movies, and this would have been a great movie all on its own.
The acting in this movie goes a long way to ensuring the spine-tingling nature of the forest comes off as well as it can. Dormer definitely has talent, juggling the roles of both twins, though I was most impressed with her screaming- it’s a natural, almost guttural scream that actually makes you wonder if she really got injured on set and they used those cuts for authenticity. There’s a scene where she falls in a hole and the way she’s crying I honestly expected her arm to be bent some weird way when she got up, she sounded like she was in so much pain. Kinney also plays into the inability of the audience to determine just what is real and what is happening in Dormer’s mind- his charm comes off as both cute and somehow creepy, feeding the delusion and sewing doubt into everyone in the vicinity (is he the bad guy? A good guy? Is he after Dormer? Did he have something to do with Jess’ disappearance? What is up with this guy?). I would love to credit Rina Takasaki, who plays a lost girl in the forest, for being creepy despite some of the cliches she has to perform. There was one moment where she acted so much like the Japanese horror ghost from, well, anything (The Ring, The Grudge, hell even Battle Royale a little bit) that I couldn’t not laugh, but there were moments where even seeing her out of the corner of the camera’s eye made me flinch a little bit.
While I’ve seen that this movie is drawing some backlash for white-washing something from the Japanese culture, I think the real issue with its presentation of this myth and location is in the constant returns to cheap horror cliches. If it hadn’t tried so hard to be conventionally scary, The Forest would actually have been much scarier (at least for those of us who are no longer phased by the jump-scares), and it would have highlighted something deeply interesting about Japanese culture and its treatment of suicide and a person’s mind. From honorable suicide from samurai to kamikaze pilots of WWII, in Japan it is apparently considered more acceptable to escape the shame of failure, which has lead to suicide being a more aesthetically acceptable part of the culture. The Yurei in the film (angry spirits) are definitely part of the lore, but they aren’t the only scary thing about those woods, though thats what the film puts its faith in for scares. Between the accurate portrayal of the woods and what’s in them (the ropes that lead to bodies as a sort of suicide note, the tent logic, etc.) and history behind them, perhaps this shouldn’t even have been a horror movie, but an insightful look into the mind and the dark, potentially dangerous corners of it.
You don’t need to look for a way out of this movie- though when it’s over, you may want a way back in for some of the story to be wrapped up.