The Forest: The Trudge, by Tyler Smith
There is a forest in Japan that is known for its sadness and mythology. For years, people have gone into the forest to commit suicide. Dozens of bodies are found there every year. To walk through it is to feel the despair of thousands of people who were so miserable in this life, they couldn’t wait to get to the next one. If ever there were a great setting for a supernatural horror film, it is the Aokigahara Forest.
That the director of The Forest, Jason Zada, and his screenwriters manage to so fully squander the mystery and eeriness of this wondrous place is almost unforgivable. When Japanese and Korean horror films have produced some of the most unsettling and haunting films of the last two decades, one would think that a supernatural film taking place in a notoriously terrifying forest in Japan would automatically be dripping with an atmosphere of longing and dread.
But, no, while The Forest does have some unsettling sequences, it mostly settles into a conventional pace with forgettable characters occasionally startled by unearned jump scares. It is the quintessential January horror movie: mildly interesting but wholly unmemorable.
The story starts out well enough, with Sarah (played by a hardworking Natalie Dormer) flying to Japan to find her troubled twin sister, Jess. When she is informed that her sister was seen walking into the Aokigahara Forest, she enlists a sympathetic, but mysterious, American journalist (Taylor Kinney) to help her on her journey. The two are joined by a Japanese guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), whose job it is to provide exposition and hushed warnings.
Once in the forest, we are allowed some interesting imagery. A man hanging from a tree, long-abandoned cabins, yards of colored thread tied from tree to tree in order to help unsure travelers find their way back. With the stage set, Sarah stumbles upon her sister’s tent, but her sister is nowhere to be found. She decides to stay the night, prompting a dire response from their wary guide. He leaves Sarah and the journalist alone and the true horror starts.
Of course, a haunted forest at night seems like it should envelop our characters (and the audience), becoming more dense and inescapable with each passing minute. The forest should be dark and foreboding, pulling us deeper into its maze. Instead, Zada shoots the forest as fairly innocuous; a place where scary things happen, rather than a place that is inherently scary itself.
By the end of the film, we’ve been treated to a little bit of creepy imagery, but none of the mourning dread that a film like this demands. The confusion of the woods is occasionally touched upon (as in a scene in which a mountain stream seems to change direction), but the film mostly plays everything natural. That is to say, it plays everything neutral, and a haunted forest should never be neutral. It should be ever-present, whispering in our ear, tormenting us, until we finally relent and allow ourselves to become a part of it.
This is the film that The Forest could have been, but too often it is content to be just another horror movie. Like a thick fog, the film is a little frightening while we’re in the midst of it, but it quickly evaporates into nothingness.