Jason Zada makes his directorial debut with the 2016 horror film The Forest, a dull exercise in overused clichés and jump scares. It’s based on a screenplay by David S. Goyer, Tory Metzger and David Linde, with the Aokigahara forest serving as the fundamental location. This allows Zada the necessary excuse to excavate several Japanese horror tropes.
Aokigahara is known as the Suicide Forest or the Sea of Trees, with local officials ceasing the publication of suicides in the place as a way to stop the sensationalizing of the issue. According to reports, some 200 people attempted suicide in Aokigahara in 2010. Zada’s captivation eschews any social or cultural meaning and instead ventures down pointless avenues.
Natalie Dormer stars as Sara Price, a young American woman who receives a call from the Japanese police stating that her twin sister Jess (Dormer) is perhaps dead. She was seen entering the Aokigahara forest. Sara heads to Japan to track down her sister, noting that if Jess was really kaput she would’ve felt something on account of some kind of twin magic.
Sara meets Aidan (Taylor Kinney), a reporter who speaks the language and knows the area. He takes her through the forest with the guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who is searching for bodies and trying to prevent suicides. Michi tells Sara and Aidan not to trust their eyes in Aokigahara because the place can play tricks on a person. Soon, they discover just how alarming the forest can be. Or something.
Dormer does her best self-righteous American act and wanders through two-thirds of the picture in a disinterested daze. There’s no real sense she’s concerned about her sister and she doesn’t abandon her smug tourist sensibility until things really start to get weird. She does get to play twins, however, which in The Forest means she gets to wear two different hair colours.
Of course, the twins are cast as good and disturbed sides of the same coin. Sara has been blocking something out of the family history and is mostly getting on with things, while Jess has been plunging the darkness. She’s attempted suicide before, which suggests she may have gone strolling into Aokigahara with a purpose. Sara refuses to believe it.
The Japan of Zada’s picture is all boondock myths, toothless grannies, screeching schoolgirls, and live seafood. It’s a lazy and troublesome pastiche of cultural and social implications, as the heartbreak of Aokigahara is very real and very current. While the forest does have its supernatural components, it’s far from a playground.
And Zada allows for absolutely no refinement in unpacking The Forest, with countless reminders of how Aokigahara operates in a mythical sense. The screenplay blatantly details the “rules,” too, which essentially telegraphs the big finale about an hour and a half before it arrives.
With The Forest bereft of psychological context, with the exception of a late-game requirement, it relies on a sea of moody effects. The good news is that Mattias Troelstrup is often effective at digging through the overcast greys and his framing is on-point. A forest near Tara Mountain in Serbia doubles for Aokigahara for obvious reasons.
But there’s honestly not a lot going on in Zada’s debut apart from the atmosphere. Sure, there are dream sequences and there’s the odd schoolgirl farting around in the trees. These flashes of shock are so wired into the whack-a-mole screenplay that they pop up right where you expect them to and add nothing but a little noise to the proceedings.
In the end, The Forest is forgettable and boring. Zada, who apparently brought the world the Elf Yourself campaign for OfficeMax, doesn’t have a lot to say in his directorial debut and it shows. Even the trees themselves seem bored stiff by this futile, predictable drag.