Editor’s Note: The Forest opened in wide theatrical release January 8, 2016.
Every January, every year, for the last four years, the first film to receive a wide release has been a less-than-stellar horror film. In 2012, it was The Devil Inside, a lazy found-footage vehicle that contained no visible effort. In 2013, it was Texas Chainsaw 3D, a horrendous monstrosity of a sequel with no reason to exist. In 2014, it was Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones which, despite being a guilty pleasure of mine, is similarly lazy outside of its attempts to spice up the Paranormal Activity formula. In 2015, it was Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, one of the most dull, plodding, and lifeless horror films this decade has ever seen. Now, it’s January of 2016, and we have The Forest, from director Jason Zada.
The Forest…skips around from necessary plot beat to necessary plot beat, almost in the fashion of a montage.
It follows Sarah (Natalie Dormer), who becomes worried when twin telepathy gives her the feeling that her identical twin, Jess, is in trouble. Inquiring about her sister’s whereabouts leads to the discovery of Jess’ last known location, the Aokigahara Forest in Japan, where hikers are known to commit suicide. Sarah’s worry grows, for good reason, so she impulsively travels to this forest in search of Jess. There she meets a man who offers to help her explore the forest, and once they do, creepy happenings begin to occur. She sees things, hears things, and is driven to do things out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, she goes deeper and deeper, unafraid of never returning.
Jason Zada, prior to this, directed a great little short called Take This Lollipop, which took your Facebook info and incorporated it into the visuals, accomplishing some pretty creepy stuff. But of course, transitioning from a short to a feature is tricky, and the beginning of The Forest does exactly what a properly investing horror film shouldn’t. It skips around from necessary plot beat to necessary plot beat, almost in the fashion of a montage. The qualities of a standard January release are all that can be seen, setting it up to be yet another “terrible first horror film of the year.” But, once Sarah travels to the Aokigahara Forest for the first time, methodical pacing rears its head. The lighting becomes pretty nice, the cinematography is fairly interesting, and though the acting never necessarily astounds, the narrative progresses at a steady rate. In an instant, The Forest transcends from a January horror atrocity to a fairly engaging thriller with occasional fun jump scares, and remains there for a while.
This forest is an incredibly unsettling location, and has the potential to foster the next all-timer of terror…
The titular forest eventually begins manipulating Sarah to abandon trust, both in her forest guide and in herself. An incredibly effective and claustrophobic scene of suspense shortly follows, and all of a sudden, The Forest becomes a genuinely thrilling horror/thriller that sets up tantalizing questions with intriguing possibilities. Then, the ending rolls around, and answers those questions in a way that’s… wholly unsatisfying and cheap. If done to perfection, maybe it could be a jarring shocker, but as it’s presented, it underwhelms on a massive scale. This forest is an incredibly unsettling location, and has the potential to foster the next all-timer of terror, the next Blair Witch Project, but The Forest, as a whole, doesn’t come close to fulfilling this prophecy. Even the thrilling aspects, after that awful ending, are ruined because you realize all of that intrigue was only building to nonsense.
Jason Zada has talent, and would do wonders with a heavily consistent project, but The Forest isn’t it.
Despite a suitably unsettling location and some well-placed thrills, The Forest too often falls back on tired tropes before finishing up with an unsatisfying conclusion.