The Forest (2016)

*. The Forest is a horror movie set in Japan’s infamous suicide forest: the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji where people often go to kill themselves. I thought it looked like Oregon. The forest you see in screen was in fact in Serbia. According to director Jason Zada’s commentary it was “a dead ringer for the actual forest in Japan.” So I guess forests look pretty much the same everywhere.
*. Horror movies are mostly the same everywhere as well. At least forests are about as archetypal a setting for a scary story as you can get. Followed closely by basements and attics.
*. I was contemplating things like this because I wasn’t that interested in the plot of The Forest. It feels like an American version of a J-horror flick, making use of a lot of the same tropes but not having the same resonance. There are lots of odds and ends borrowed from various other movies (demonic Japanese schoolgirls, a cabin in the woods) but they seem thrown together carelessly, in a way that I found ultimately defeated coherence.
*. The basic set-up is . . . pretty basic. Sara’s sister Jess (Natalie Dormer in a dual role) has gone missing in the forest so Sara goes looking for her. Apparently the forest is also a haunted place, filled with ghosts that have come back angry. Sort of like the animals buried out at the Pet Sematary. In any event, Sara is warned not to go off the path and not to stay in the forest overnight. Of course she disregards this advice and begins having hallucinations of ghosts, which she has also been warned about.
*. This is where the movie lost me. Sara is so messed up even before she gets to the forest that it muddles the question of what is real even further. Is she hallucinating? Just having a bad dream? Or do the ghosts have an objective reality? The answer seems to be, at different times, all of the above. As we get deeper into the woods I started wondering how all of this was going to be resolved. Well, spoiler alert, it isn’t. Fooled me!
*. I initially thought Sara had some kind of repressed memory thing going on, but according to Zada she’s just an unreliable narrator telling Aiden a made-up story about her parents’ death. But why? This sort of thing kept popping up in the film, confusing me and not in a good way.
*. The ending is another mystery. Zada talks about Sara committing suicide by slitting her wrist, but when she does this it’s clearly an accident. If the yurei (ghosts) trick her into killing herself, that’s not suicide. Also it makes us wonder whether she actually died in the basement (if there really was a basement) or was dragged to hell out in the forest. I don’t see how it’s possible to sort any of this out.
*. So I didn’t like it. I think they were trying to be more psychological than gory, but what they got was a mess. So much effort is put into making us suspicious of Aiden that his character is left a cipher. How did he know that poem? Where does he go to get that rope? Meanwhile, Sara behaves so randomly that we can’t relate to her or her predicament. I also think Dormer makes a poor Scream Queen. Listen to how she delivers her line “Daddy no, let me go.” She sounds like someone who just wants to get out of this movie.
*. I’ll end with an appreciation of a couple of things. The river that reverses course is a neat idea and nicely played. And the ViewFinder of memory is well done, at least until the predictable jump scare at the end. Together, however, these two items take up less than a minute of screen time, which leaves us with a lot of time left over to just look at the trees.

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