Horror Film Review: The Forest (dir by Jason Zada)


Why, as of late, have I been seeing so many movies about Aokigahara Forest?

Aokigarhara Forest is this location in Japan that’s right at the foot of Mt. Fiji and apparently, hundreds of people go there every year and commit suicide.  It happens so frequently that the location has been nicknamed “The Suicide Forest” and the problem has gotten so bad that the local authorities have even resorted to putting up signs that 1) ask people not to kill themselves and 2) reassure visitors that their problems will get better.

To me, that’s pretty depressing and not really something that should be glamorized or exploited.  I mean, this is an actual forest where real people — not fictional characters but real human beings — got to end their lives.  In fact, it’s been reported that local officials no longer publicly discuss the number of dead bodies that they find in the woods because they don’t want publicize Aokigahara’s reputation.

And yet, this year saw not one but two movies released about the Aokigahara Forest, both of which made a point of specifically saying that they were set in this very real location.  (Would I have been more comfortable with the films if they had been located in a fictional location where people go to commit suicide, even if that fictional location was obviously based on Aokigahara?  Probably.)  One was The Sea of Trees, a mawkish and sentimental mess from Gus Van Sant.  The other was The Forest.

Do you remember The Forest?  You might not because it came out in January and most of us were too busy trying to catch up on the Oscar nominees to waste much time with it.  Traditionally, the worst movies are released in January.  That’s especially true of horror movies.  I mean, let’s just be honest.  If a studio has a good horror movie, they’re going to release it in October and try to pick up on all the Halloween business.  When a studio has a bad horror movie, they’re going to dump it in January and hope that no one notices.

Anyway, The Forest came and went without a trace and now it’s making the rounds on HBO so you can watch it if you really want to.

The film stars Natalie Dormer as both Sara and her troubled sister, Jess.  Ever since their parents died in a mysterious car accident, Jess and Sara have had a strained relationship.  Jess witnessed their deaths but Sara did not.  By the film’s logic, this means that Jess starts dressing in black while Sara shakes her head in disapproval.  Anyway, Jess goes to Japan and disappears in the Aokigahara Forest.  Everyone tells Sara that Jess must be dead but Sara says that, since their twins, she can tell that her sister is still alive.

So, of course, Sara goes to Japan so that she can go search the forest for herself!  Now, since Sara is an American in Japan, we have to get at least one shot of her sitting in a taxi with all the lights of Tokyo reflected on the back windows.  Seriously, this shot appears in every single American movie made about Japan.

Sara goes to a bar and meets an American reporter.  His name is Aiden, he’s played by Taylor Kinney, and he’s not that interesting.  Aiden, Sara, and a guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) go into the woods and stuff happens.  I was tempted to say strange stuff happens but actually, none of it is that strange.  It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect to happen in a horror film set in the Suicide Forest.  By the time the mysterious schoolgirl showed up and started telling Sara not to trust anyone, I had pretty much lost interest.

I’m tempted to say that, at the very least, The Forest was atmospheric but … no.  I mean, there’s a lot of shots of shadowy trees and deserted tents and all of that but that’s all pretty much basic stuff.  That’s Horror 101.  I mean, even Grave Halloween, a 2013 SyFy film about the forest, managed to make the forest atmospheric.  So, no, I’m not having it.  There are too many good but underappreciated horror films out there for me to waste time making excuses for something like The Forest.

That’s The Forest.  It came out in January and, having watched it, I can see why.