‘The Forest’ Review: Barking Up the Wrong Tree

'The Forest'

Movie Rating:


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.


  1. CC

    Is it a requirement that every movie reviewer must, at some point, overuse the term “po-faced”?
    There must have been a memo.

          • timcharger

            It doesn’t make you look tough.

            A barb that amounts to nitpicking the use of a vocabulary word
            got a pretty harsh response from you.

            It made me wonder if something else might be bugging you.

          • timcharger

            Defend against the accusation of the overuse of an word?
            Is that felony offense in some states?

            “So Philly why did you punch Charlie?”
            “Because Charlie said I overused a word.”

            Do the search. Check out the result. See for yourself.

            In a way, CC’s diligent reading of Phil’s reviews is a
            compliment to Phil.

        • Csm101

          Yeah, but the accusation of the overuse of the word had a bit of a smarmy bite, which Phil simply retorted in the same manner, I would hardly call that a punch in the face. I interpreted it more like…
          “So Philly, why you such a smartass to Charlie?”
          “Because Charlie’s giving me lip about my writing style and I don’t take no guff from no po-faced mo-fros!”

          • timcharger

            Yeah, CC was swarmy. But it was funny, too.
            When I looked at how often was it used, that was funny.
            And it’s not Phil’s “writing style,” it’s just one term.

            And for the record, I have complimented Phil on his
            writing before.

      • EM

        I had to look it up, too. It wasn’t even in my Oxford Canadian Dictionary (I was taking a cue from Phil’s biography). A resoundingly American Merriam-Webster did list it, though—as a British term.

        • timcharger

          Use the Bonus View’s search feature. And you can see that CC is correct.
          Guess the memo mandates a 30 day waiting period.

          • timcharger

            Em, I’m just surprised that as a most educated
            and a careful reader of Phil’s reviews you are, that you
            missed this vocabulary term for half a dozen reviews.
            Only to look it up now. Logically, that doesn’t follow
            given how meticulous you are. 🙂

          • EM

            po-faced \ˈpō-ˌfāst\ adj, chiefly Brit : smug. glib, hypocritically solemn

            No, I guess I missed the review(s) in which Phil waxed lexicographical.

      • Phil is Canadian, which is just a step removed from British. You should see how many unnecessary “u”s I have to remove from his writing: “colour,” “flavour,” “bouring,” etc. 🙂

  2. Csm101

    “Defend against the accusation of the overuse of a word? Is that a felony offense in some states?”
    It might me in Canada.😜

  3. Chris B

    Lol, I love how not a single one of these comments is even talking about the movie Phil just reviewed….this escalated quickly.

  4. Phil

    Hi gang,

    For the record, my first comment to CC was intended as a playful joke turning the criticism of my use of the word “po-faced” around. The second comment I made to Tim was also intended as a joke, just a slightly harsher one since Tim regularly calls me out in the comments, so I like to jokingly come back at him. I don’t hate anyone. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just goofing around. Obviously I’m thrilled that you all read my reviews and want to comment. That’s delightful. But, if you bite, I’ll bite back. Just be aware that I do it all in fun because this is a comment section. Not an ally behind a bar where I’m looking for a fight.


    Po-faced Phil

    • Chris B

      Josh, that’s two comments of mine you’ve deleted in the last two days. The first one was understandable but the second? I am fully aware that this is your own personal blog and you run the show but come on man. Are we not allowed to speak relatively freely here provided we’re not cursing someone out? Are we not allowed to state that we’re annoyed by someone and sympathize with the opposing party? We’re all grown men right? What gives?

      • This is not a place for arguing or bickering. I’ve given this conversation a lot of leeway considering that it has nothing to do with the movie being reviewed, but when comments get personal, I sometimes have to step in as moderator to prevent tensions from getting inflamed. This is for everyone’s own good. I would rather that nobody say something they’ll regret later.

        Note that I very rarely ever censor or delete comments on this blog, and (aside from spammers) have only ever had to ban one person after he repeatedly abused his right to post here. I’m sure some of you can guess who that was.

    • timcharger

      Looking forward to your next usage of the word.
      The monthly mandate. I’m serious. I curious how
      creatively you can use it. Too bad there’s no Winnie
      the “Poh” film coming. Or a gross out comedy where
      feces is thrown at one’s countenance. That way you
      aren’t officially using the term. Phil, review readers
      fan service. Think about it. I know you want to.

  5. itjustWoRX

    Wasn’t there some other drama-film about the Aokiagahara Forest released last year? I want to say it was Matthew McConaughey that was in it…hmm.

    • Apparently, there was. I hadn’t heard of it until now.


      The Sea of Trees was panned by critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 0%, based on 10 reviews, with an average rating of 2.2/10. At its May 2015 debut at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was met with harsh critical reception; it was loudly booed and laughed at by an audience of critics, with critic Scott Foundas calling it a film “for nobody.”

      • Chris B

        Yeah and directed by Gus Van Sant to boot. I was excited to see the movie before it cane out and then I heard the horrible reviews and steered clear. Has Van Sant completely lost his directing mojo?

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