Horror is not a genre typically known for its good taste or sense of tact. That’s why it’s kind of fucked up, but not at all surprising that (the first major release of 2016) The Forest turned a mental health epidemic into plot fodder to support cheap jump scares in a mostly mediocre horror pic. In case you’ve missed the film’s ad campaign, The Forest is a spooky ghost story set in the real-life Aokigahara forest, a wooded area near Mt. Fuji in Japan where startling numbers of (again, real) people have been known to ritualistically commit suicide. The Forest, of course, has no interest in addressing the cultural stigma attached to suicide & pays only the faintest attention to Aokigahara’s troubled history (which stretches back even before the suicide epidemic). For the film’s purposes, Aokigahara is merely a spooky backdrop for a fairly standard ghost story & not much more. Imagine if another country made a found footage slasher film about the 9/11 terrorist attacks & you’d get a pretty good idea of how crass The Forest is as an intellectual property. (Also, I would totally watch that 9/11 slasher.)
Thankfully, I don’t need to look to PG-13 horror flicks starring supporting actors from Game of Thrones (Natalie Dormer, in this case) as pillars of morality. I’ve accepted horror as a mostly exploitative genre by nature, so the general ickiness of The Forest doesn’t bother me too much, if at all, especially considering that it’s at least the fourth movie that’s been staged there since 2010. This allows me to see the film for what it truly is: a generic ghost story set in the woods. If anything truly bothered me about the film it’d be its clunky exposition that required multiple flashbacks & mood-setting conversations before the film finally gets lost in the titular forest nearly a third of the way into its runtime, but even that offense is forgivable once the story gets rolling. As a modern horror flick for the PG-13 crowd, The Forest is surprisingly decent. I’d dare say that large chunks of the concluding 45min even approach greatness (without ever exactly achieving it) as the film’s themes crumble into a satisfyingly pessimistic climax. If the first 45 minutes were nearly that focused & confident, we might even have something truly recommendable here.
The Forest‘s plot concerns an American housewife (Natalie Dormer) searching for her twin sister (also Natalie Dormer, duh) in the famed Aokigahara forest after she has been reported missing for several days. As the film progresses it becomes apparent that the missing twin has a history of suicide scares & struggles with depression, not to mention a history of familial mental health issues at large. Something pretty incredible starts to take shape during these revelations: The Forest begins to establish its own unique mythology through the specific imagery of basements & children’s toy viewfinders. It even accomplishes this through flashbacks to a childhood trauma, which is curious considering that flashbacks are what makes the film’s opening half hour such a clunky slog.
A lot of The Forest goes more or less exactly as you’d expect a ghost story set in the wilderness to go. There’s a wealth of jump scares surrounding creepy demon children & the elderly (whose presence are explained in a brief history lesson about Aokigahara’s past & mythology) with CGI-altered faces. There’s also an obligatory Stranger Who Cannot Be Trusted & incessant, well-intended advice not to camp in the woods overnight & to always remember “Do. Not. Leave. The. Path.” that the main character, of course, ignores the first time she gets the chance. The film can also surprise you at times if you allow it, though. I particularly enjoyed the way its natural setting was employed in its HD nature photography & in the way its ghostly hallucinations allowed the reality & physical landscape to shift from scene to scene.
As I said, though, what’s most surprising about The Forest is the way it finds its own sense of purpose through the imagery of a memory of a basement-set childhood trauma, as well as its resolve to bring its themes to a satisfyingly pessimistic, fucked up conclusion instead of a falsely happy one. I didn’t expect nearly that much effort out the formlessness of its first act & the morally reprehensible aspects of its pedigree. January & February can typically be dumping grounds for a lot of lackluster horror properties, but this one wasn’t all that bad. If nothing else, it’s far more satisfying than The Lazarus Effect, which was unleashed upon us around this same time last year.