What is it about Japan’s Aokigahara Forest that both tempts filmmakers and yet stubbornly resists becoming a good movie? Jason Zada’s The Forest is the second film in as many years about the woods at the base of Mt. Fuji, where dozens of people go to commit suicide each year. Last year’s attempt, Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, got booed into oblivion at Cannes, and The Forest also fails to produce compelling horror out of the so-called “suicide forest.”
Perhaps it’s because The Forest tries to do too many things at once. Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer stars as Sara Price, who is drawn to Aokigahara after her twin Jess is seen disappearing into it. Jess is also played by Dormer (in a brunette wig), but unfortunately not much is made of the potential for haunting doppelganger motifs. Upon arriving in Japan, Sara encounters a travel reporter named Aidan (Taylor Kinney) and a park guide named Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who offer to take her into the forest on one of their suicide watch hikes. Though Aidan appears trustworthy at first, Sara starts to suspect that he may have met Jess before she disappeared. Meanwhile, Sara is struggling with repressed memories of her parents’ mysterious death when she and Jess were young, which is only compounded by the forest’s vaguely-defined powers of illusion. Ambiguity is good in a horror movie, but with this many plot elements elbowing each other for room, none of them achieve enough clarity to be properly terrifying.
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Forest is that it’s ultimately not very scary. Moments that are clearly meant to induce horror come few and far between. Mostly Dormer just walks around trees a lot. This is doubly disappointing because the setting gives the filmmakers all of Japanese horror mythology to work with. That is a deep well, full of monstrous demons, but Zada and his team hardly draw from it at all except for the occasional zombie schoolgirl.
The Forest doesn’t know if it’s a supernatural thriller, a story about repressed childhood darkness, or an eerie doppelganger mystery. It fails to fully become any of them, and ends up missing the forest for the trees. C+