“The Forest” is exactly the kind of movie we’ve come to expect on the first nonholiday weekend of any new year.
More or less the industry’s clearing house/dumping ground, January (and August in the summer) is where unwanted and surplus B-films go to die. Generally low-budget affairs, they’re usually romantic comedies, action-adventures and (as with “The Forest”) genre horror flicks.
As January stuff goes, “The Forest” isn’t horrible thanks mostly to a short (94 minute) running time and a pretty decent third act. It ends far better than it begins and delivers a plot twist most people won’t see coming. The best thing about it is that it is set in a location that comes with its own built-in, real-life horror story.
In case you didn’t know it (and there’s little reason you should), the Aokigahara Forest located at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan is a place with a dubious history. It is there where people go to die or, more specifically, to commit suicide. As you might expect the locals aren’t too pleased about this factoid, but neither do they do much to dissuade the morbidly curious tourists and thrill-seekers with money to spend from coming.
In an attempt to get a fresh start, the perpetually troubled Jess Price (Natalie Dormer, “Game of Thrones,” the “Hunger Games” franchise) relocates to Honshu Island near Fuji to teach English at an all-girl’s middle school. Back in the states, Jess’ identical twin sister, Sara (Dormer again), grows concerned after multiple voice mail messages left for Jess receive no reply. Convinced Jess is in trouble, Sara flies to Japan to find her.
Upon arrival, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney, the multiple current “Chicago” TV shows), an American ex-pat living nearby working as a travel writer.
Charming and affable, Aiden feels Sara out and determines there’s a potential great story brewing. In exchange for her cooperation, he arranges help from a local guide whose job it is to recover the bodies of the recently deceased and/or try to talk them out of offing themselves.
For the first and last 15 minutes of the film, rookie director Jason Zada and the three screenwriters put together a decent crime thriller with supernatural elements and are blessed with a creepy and sinister nonfictional location (the Tara National Park in Serbia pinch-hitting for Japan), an opportunity that is largely wasted.
For that long hour in the middle, Zada stuffs the production with virtually every horror cliché you can imagine: jolts, sped-up film stock, apparitions coming out of nowhere, ominous ambient sounds and characters ignoring obvious red flags.
Too much time is spent on watching three people walk through the woods saying little and finding even less. By the time Zada finally gets around to the last few scenes, we’re so bored anything would be an improvement, and it is, but it’s a slog getting there.
To their credit, the writers include a fair amount of subtext regarding the symbiotic relationship between identical twins, and Dormer runs with it by lending Jess and Sara distinctly different personalities. It would be interesting to see what she could do with dual roles in a more traditional murder mystery minus all of the mystical mumbo-jumbo and horror trappings.