Remember about a decade ago when every American horror flick was actually a remake of a J-horror movie or at least done in the style of Japanese horror? You know, before all the ’70s/’80s horror remakes and the Found Footage trend. Well, apparently the time has come for North American J-horror to return. Why? Who knows? But Universal Studios decided to release ‘The Forest’, a film that feels more of a piece with the era of sequels to remakes of ‘The Grudge’ or ‘The Ring’ than anything contemporary.
Even worse, it’s not even a particularly good version of that tired old horror trope. In fact, about an hour of this 95-minute horror movie isn’t really horrific at all. The film is mostly comprised of sequences of pretty people looking solemnly at each other discussing the possibility of future scares. Somehow, that’s even more tedious to watch than it sounds.
The film is hinged around a genuinely creepy and intriguing setting: the Aokiagahara Forest in Japan, where people regularly commit suicide. Unfortunately, much more of the movie is spent with the troubled lead character thinking about that forest than actually within the terrifying locale. Natalie Dormer from ‘Game of Thrones’ stars as a pair of twin sisters who experienced a traumatic event as children that scared one sister more than the other. To avoid confusion, the more damaged sister has black hair and the more settled sister has blonde hair. Yeah, it’s that type of movie.
When the dark-haired Jess disappears in the forest, blonde-haired Sara flies to Japan to find her. Everyone she speaks to about the forest warns that it houses evil spirits that toy with the perception of anyone who dares to enter. She’s repeatedly told not to go hunting through those woods (especially after dark) and struggles with the decision. Then she meets a hunky dude (Taylor Kinney) in a bar who agrees to accompany her to write about the ordeal. They hire a guide, march through the woods, and then decide to camp down for the night when the inevitably spooky shenanigans begin.
Now, you might be thinking that all sounds like setup material that would be covered in the first act. You would be wrong. It actually takes almost a full two-thirds of the movie to get down to the ghostly business. Director Jason Zada even dispenses with jump scares and unsettling atmosphere fairly quickly to focus more on his protagonists’ fractured mental state. If ‘The Forest’ were a compelling psychological drama about grief that just happened to end up at Aokiagahara, that might have worked. But it’s not. It’s supposed to be a horror romp that wastes way too much time on po-faced characters discussing sadness before getting to the good stuff.
Dormer is fine in her dual roles, even if her quiet underacting sometimes feels more like posed blank expressions than brooding. Everybody else are pure cardboard stock genre types, so it can be absolutely excruciating to wait for ‘The Forest’ to reach its haunted destination.
When the ghosts finally arrive, there are admittedly a handful of decent scares. Zada has some fun toying with reality and hallucination, planting figures in the corners of frames that the characters and audience aren’t quite sure they see. However, eventually the movie just turns into yet another Americanized run through the J-horror motions with all the smiling school girls, long passages of silence, and sudden jump scares. The scare gags are pretty cheap and, more frustratingly, about a decade behind the horror curve. Even the best scares sequences the filmmakers whip up (like one involving a mysterious Viewmaster) are obvious and tired. Aside from the creepy setting, it’s unclear why anyone would return to this genre well, and that’s just as true of viewers as it is of the filmmakers.
That’s not to say that ‘The Forest’ is a total embarrassment. It’s not complete crap; it’s just not particularly good either. The lead performance is adequate and a handful of the spooky set-pieces get the jumps they seek. The trouble is that the movie’s just not consistent enough as a scare factory to work as a genre lark, nor are the characters close to compelling enough for it to work as tense drama or psychological horror. The movie is ultimately just a mediocre indie horror effort with decent production values. It’s the type of thing that shows up on Netflix all the time without much fuss or muss. The fact that it ended up at Universal Studios is strange. I guess the studio just needed an indie horror flick to fit a gap in the release schedule but couldn’t find the next ‘Unfriended’, so settled on this weak effort instead.
That’s a bummer, but at least Universal seem to be committed to releasing horror flicks again. It’s nice that the studio built on the backs of the classic Universal Monsters hasn’t forgotten its roots. Too bad it about this stinker, though. Hopefully the next horror project Universal picks up will be worth the studio’s efforts and attention.