In the classic horror Don’t Look Now, Nic Roeg turned Venice into a psychological battleground – a haunted city where Donald Sutherland’s grieving father played out the lingering anguish and guilt over his deceased daughter. In The Forest, Natalie Dormer heads to a remote part of Japan and finds herself stranded by a duff plot which barely touches the sides of its own premise.
Let’s keep things brief, because The Forest is awful and we probably shouldn’t linger here too long. Dormer stars in a dual role as American twin sisters Sara and Jess. Jess is an English teacher in Japan who goes missing in Aokigahara – a real-life stretch of forest skirting Mt Fuji that is infamous for being a destination for the suicidal. Sara senses that her sister is still alive, and so she gets on a plane to Japan and, with the assistance of a toned travel journalist, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), goes on a hunt through the forest to track Jess down.
Now, let’s leave aside the frankly distasteful idea of a real-life site of personal tragedy being used as the jumping-off point for a cheap horror film. Let’s dwell instead on the missed opportunities: The Forest spends its entire opening third introducing the Japanese setting, as Dormer’s character stares wistfully out of the window of a luxury Tokyo hotel or wandering up and down the streets of Akihabara with no obvious signs of worry for her missing sister. It takes the time to show Sara taking a trip on a rattling little train to Aokigahara, before stopping off at a traditional Japanese inn for some by-the-numbers jump-scares.
The Forest goes through the motions of establishing its far-eastern setting, and then promptly jettisons it all for a generic supernatural yarn which could have taken place in any green and leafy place on the planet (the movie was actually shot in Serbia, since the Japanese government understandably refused to let the filmmakers shoot in the real location). The Forest’s trio of writers (Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai) show no interest in exploring the rich possibilities of Japanese culture and folklore other than the odd mention of yurei (angry ghosts) or the occasional appearance from a creepy Japanese schoolgirl.
Instead, The Forest is more interested in exploring the backwaters of Sara and Jess’s minds, which wouldn’t be so bad if: one, we hadn’t seen the kinds of things the plot throws up a dozen times before, and two: if the movie made us truly believe, at any point, that Sara is concerned about her sister’s safety. Dormer, clearly an actress of talent if Game Of Thrones is anything to go by, is poorly directed here by Jason Zada, who makes his feature debut. Where’s the sense of desperation we might expect from a person who fears that something terrible might have happened to her sibling? For much of the film, Sara seems not so much a distraught sister as a plucky gap-year student.
Even the film’s attempts at button-pushing body-horror fail to catch fire, and the disjointed nature of some scenes might imply that there’s a different cut of The Forest lurking on a shelf somewhere; the strange deployment of a View-Master (remember those?) might even suggest that the movie was once intended to be released in 3D.
Generic at best and shoddy in its weaker moments, The Forest is a disappointment even when measured against other supernatural, woodland-based horrors, of which there are already plenty. Natalie Dormer does what she can, but she’s roundly let down by a movie which fails to make dig beneath the surface of its characters or its setting. This isn’t so much Don’t Look Now as Don’t Even Bother.
The Forest is out in UK cinemas now.