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'The Forest' Film Review: J-horror wannabe is all bark and no bite

January 8, 2016Ben MK

At the base of Japan's Mount Fuji there lies a 14-square-mile piece of land so densely populated with trees that it's known as "Jukai," or "Sea of Trees." Its official name is the Aokigahara Forest; however, it also goes by another, more sinister moniker: the Suicide Forest. With 50-100 suicides estimated to take place there each year, it's no wonder many people consider the Aokigahara Forest to be haunted — which, of course, makes it the perfect setting for a horror movie.

Enter The Forest, a film that aims to capitalize on the creepiness of this real-life locale. Starring Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer as Sara Price, an American who travels to Japan in search of her missing identical twin, it's the story of a woman who ends up venturing deep into the heart of the Aokigahara in search of answers. Instead, all Sara finds are restless spirits and more questions. Now she too must fight to find her way out of the place that thousands of people have made their final destination. But with the forest's supernatural inhabitants — the Yurei — working against her, does she stand a chance?

Directed by first-time feature director Jason Zada and written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai, The Forest is by no means a unique piece of filmmaking, taking your standard haunted house and horror movie tropes and simply transposing them to a setting that's as outdoorsy as it is claustrophobic. Unfortunately, what that more often than not amounts to are jump scares, with the majority of the film's frights being derived from the sudden appearance of ghoulish-looking elderly people or schoolgirls who burst into frame and lunge towards the camera.

That being said, the film isn't without its redeeming qualities. Featuring a predominantly Japanese cast and filmed on-location in Japan and in Serbia's Tara National Park, The Forest at least looks authentic. And with its slow-burning narrative, it certainly isn't lacking for atmospheric tension. What it could definitely do with more of, however, is a greater focus on the aspects of Japanese mythology that underscore the movie, as the cursory treatment the script gives to the real-life legends of Aokigahara Forest and the Yurei are far from what is needed to inspire any true terror.

Otherwise, the The Forest is by no means plot-heavy, dispensing with any real exposition and providing only the bare minimum of backstory for its characters. Essentially a psychological thriller with supernatural elements, it has Dormer and her co-star, Chicago Fire's Taylor Kinney, spending most of the film traipsing through dense vegetation while trying their best to heed the warnings of the local residents and a park ranger named Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). Of course, we all know there's a very high probability that things will end badly for them, which is typically the case for movies like this.

It's hard not to expect more from The Forest, as the filmmakers behind it are clearly following the same template set forth more than a decade ago by the J-horror remakes The Ring and The Grudge. Yet they do so without an understanding of what made those films so frightening, choosing to dole out cheap scares rather than to take the time to craft something genuinely haunting. In the end, that makes The Forest something fans of those older — more superior — films will appreciate the most. Just know that if you're expecting to be scared out of your seat, you're barking up the wrong tree.

The Forest releases January 8th, 2016 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and images. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 35 Mins.

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