As pitifully generic as its title, “The Forest” hews to clichés until its final, dying breath. Director Jason Zada hails from the advertising world, and on the basis of his maiden feature, that’s where he should swiftly return, so dreadfully formulaic is his debut, which concerns an American named Sara (Natalie Dormer) who, at film’s outset, dreams of her twin sister Jess (also Dormer) running panicked through Aokigahara Forest – which lies at the base of Mount Fiji – and immediately awakens, packs, and hops aboard a flight to Japan. Sara does this because she and Jess share a twin-link that tells them when the other is in danger, and Sara is convinced that Jess is still alive. When someone later tells her that this sounds “mystical,” she objects, stating that she can simply feel a low sonic vibration running through her body that indicates if her sibling is okay or in trouble. So, mysticism it is!
Aokigahara Forest is notorious for being a site where individuals go to commit suicide – and, also, where locals used to abandon the sick, the infirm and the elderly to die. The deceased’s spirits now reportedly haunt the heavily shrouded woods, though Sara doesn’t believe such gobbledygook, despite the fact that Jess has already twice tried to end her life, and is clearly her dark counterpart – a yin-yang relationship made plain by the fact that Sara is sunny and blonde and Jess is a brooding brunette. Those dynamics, alas, are of little interest to Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai’s script, which feigns interest in its characters as it propels Sara forward toward her date with the supernatural. Before that meeting can take place, she first has to make a pit-stop at a tourist office where they keep suicide victims in the basement, as well as spend time at a bar where she meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a hunky travel reporter who conveniently agrees to let Sara join him and a tour guide on their forthcoming hike through the forest.
“The Forest” quickly gets Sara to Japan and its haunted woods, elucidating her backstory through exposition-heavy flashbacks that pile on information of minor importance to the actual action at hand. So careless is Zada’s storytelling that Sara’s boyfriend Rob (Eoin Macken) is given the type of careless blink-and-you’ll-miss-him introduction befitting a no-dimensional plot device. Meanwhile, the history of Aokigahara Forest proves sketchy at best, and amounts to it being a spooky place where ghosts try to trick visitors into killing themselves because, well, they’re angry. Like so much tossed-off horror work, the film assumes its audience will simply buy the notion that specters linger unhappily among the living because of past crimes committed against them, and doesn’t bother developing its phantoms beyond that point. The result is that their Horror 101 evil seems purposeless and moronic.
Zada repeatedly has Sara ever-so-slowly walk toward doors or down basement stairs, as well as reach for objects, in order to build suspense for inevitable, uniformly predictable jump scares. Any sort of genuine dread, however, is wholly absent from “The Forest,” as is basic logic once Sara and Aiden find Jess’s abandoned tent, and decide – against their guide’s stern objections – to spend the night, alone, in the forest. It’s not long before they’re foolishly running off in all directions, heeding the untrustworthy advice of a creepy schoolgirl lost in the woods, and failing to understand that just about everything taking place is, as the guide predicted, a mind game perpetrated by the area’s malevolent spirits. You’d think either Sara or Aiden would immediately realize the error of their ways, yet thanks to a screenplay that relegates Aiden to behaving suspiciously and Sara to staring off in blank silence during every moment when a comment or question would be appropriate, they instead dive headfirst into more danger, to the point that one soon begins to side with the forest’s vengeful forces.
Amidst such silliness lurk potentially intriguing issues about the past, be it with regards to kids’ responsibility for the people who raised them, or the painful process of confronting hidden truths in order to transcend trauma (all of which come courtesy of a faux-mysterious narrative thread about Sara’s dead parents). Yet they’re buried so deeply within “The Forest” that they register as mere ghostly whispers of a film far better than this ghoulishly graceless one. [D]