Prior to seeing The Forest, I had very little knowledge about Aokigahara Forest or its disturbing legacy. Yet, everything I’ve read since about this location has been fascinating. Secluded just northwest of Mount Fuji, Aokigahara (also known as The Sea of Trees) has long been a popular tourist spot with its lush greenery, numerous hiking trails, and even hidden ice caverns. However, it is famous for a more insidious reason too: Aokigahara is also known as the “Suicide Forest” since it is where hundreds, if not thousands, of souls have gone to take their lives.
While the definitive origin for this grim tradition remains elusive, the popular myth is that these woods were the site of the “Ubasute” custom in the 19th century (where during times of war or famine, families supposedly abandoned their sick and elderly in the wilderness). It is also apparently haunted by Yurei, a most malicious type of angry spirit. Whether either bit of folklore is true, any good tourist will tell you about the suicide hotline signs that punctuate the forest like so many waterfalls.
All of this is to say that the history of the “Suicide Forest” is fascinating and more than worthy of any number of films, including those of the horror variety. Which is perhaps why I’m less than enthused about The Forest—a new supernatural chiller with a beautiful nightmare of a premise that still ultimately plays like any other paint by numbers PG-13 horror movie.
By mining the admittedly morbid history around Aokigahara, first time director Jason Zada and his triumvirate of writers flirt dangerously close to ideas about loss, the threat of compartmentalization, and spooky wrathful spirits that are the equivalent of suicidal devils on your shoulder. But the filmmakers’ final product remains frustratingly serviceable in its structural intent: provide jump scares about every 10 minutes.
As previously mentioned, the set-up is certainly tantalizing enough: Natalie Dormer plays Sara, a successful woman who has achieved a seemingly happy life after a childhood trauma. She lives in D.C. with her husband Rob (Eoin Macken) and has a good job, but she is still haunted by what she witnessed as a girl and how it affected her twin sister Jess (also Dormer). Due to their genetic connection, Sara can always feel when her sister is in trouble, so it is hardly a surprise when she receives a phone call that Jess, who was teaching abroad, has vanished into Aokigahara.
Able to sense that her twin is alive, Sara ignores caution when she flies to Japan and chooses to spend the night in The Sea of Trees, looking for her missing sister. She is at first accompanied by Japanese guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and a bemused journalist searching for a story or a date, Aiden (Taylor Kinney). But after Michi refuses to spend the night in the woods, Sara and Aiden will be left to themselves and the spirits of the forest (Yurei), who supposedly drive you to commit suicide through any means necessary. Want to guess if the legends are real?
For about 20 minutes or so in the middle of its campfire story, The Forest toys with an intriguing bit of disturbing reality. And one suspects that the filmmakers know where the strongest elements of the film are since the stateside beginning feels overly edited as the movie rushes to get Sara to Japan and in a pair of hiking boots. This is also the right instinct, because even if the film is mostly shot in Eastern Europe (only the early scenes of Sara’s Lost in Translation arrival were filmed in Japan), the introduction to the forest taps into an earnest dread.
As Sara, Aiden, and Michi march through the crushed leaves and dense foliage, the film showcases the jarring contrast. Surrounded by sunny, natural beauty, Sara keeps coming across the real strings that suicide victims leave as markers for their corpses, and she meets from a distance some of the lost souls who live in that Twilight Zone territory between life and death—ostensibly camping in the woods while unsure if they want to pull the proverbial trigger (or literal noose).
But these elements are ultimately window dressing to a far more familiar yarn of workmanlike scares. To be sure, there are a few very effective jumps that will be the highlight of the film, but just like all the telltale signs of Sara’s continual psychological breakdown, they are broadly telegraphed by the silencing of music or the deep breath that always precedes the booming “boo.”
The Yurei themselves are also a disappointment since they primarily take the guise of young Japanese schoolgirls who’ve seen Ju-On one too many times. The one bit of genuine horror that does not come from crashing orchestrations is the idea that Sara’s love for her sister has brought her to a place where all of her repressed guilt and anxiety will manifest as the supernatural. In short, the Suicide Forest reaches to deeply buried impulses that Sara has hidden from all her life.
It is on this hook that Natalie Dormer hangs her talented acting hat, but much like the premise, it’s underutilized in favor of sequences of Sara running isolated through the woods from one pale apparition to the next. The actual payoff of this character arc of repression and doomed sisterly love would have been much more effective if Sara and Jess’ interaction wasn’t reduced to a single flashback, or if these complementary characters were explored with the kind of nuance and sophistication rarely found in January releases.
The other characters, including a game Kinney, also go through the motions, but only during the rushed third act does The Forest find a pulse in its supposed heart of darkness, and by then it’s already racing toward the end credits.
There has been much made on social media that basing a horror on a real Japanese location is disrespectful and that it should have featured actual Japanese stars. While there is nothing about Sara or Jess that would have prevented them from being Asian characters, that is hardly a sin of the actual film—nor do I think making a horror movie about real-life locations should be considered off-limits (otherwise, why aren’t we picketing every ghost story that dubiously claims it’s “based on true events?”).
The bigger issue is that instead of fully exploiting its setting and grisly subtext, which hides just beneath the surface like oh, so many handsy corpses, The Forest feels like a walk in the park. A rather pleasant one at that.