“Hunger Games” starlet Natalie Dormer plays twin sisters in jeopardy in first-time film director Jason Zada’s “The Forest” (*1/2 OUT OF ****), a superficial, supernatural saga set in the unsavory ‘suicide forest’ in Japan. Basically, this tame twin sisters tale of terror recycles cobwebbed clichés from dozens of standard-issue horror movies, but conjures two few legitimate scares. This half-baked, hallucinatory horror epic features two kinds of scares. A ghoul or group of ghouls materialize out of nowhere in front of our heroine or a zombie stalks her. Indeed, some of these sightings occur at night when our heroine is where she shouldn’t be stumbling through the foliage with nothing more than her cell phone to illuminate the gloom. Otherwise, neither Dormer’s sympathetic performance nor the exotic real-life setting of Aokigahara makes this exercise in suspense remotely memorable. Clocking in at 95 minutes, “The Forest” could have conjured up more spooky encounters. Nothing here is comparable to genuinely, hair-raising chillers like either “The Grudge” or “The Ring.” Essentially, freshman scenarist Sarah Cornwell, “30 Days of Night: Dark Days” scribe Ben Ketai, and “Hannibal” television writer Nick Antosca have penned the equivalent of a routine haunted house thriller. In the latter, somebody—usually a fickle female—survives a night in a haunted house either to prove her pluck or her folly and skirmishes with ghouls galore. Similarly, after our heroine’s twin sister vanishes into the suicide forest, her anxious twin jets off to Japan to search for her in that 35 mile acreage of cursed woods. Dormer’s heroine isn’t the only American loitering in the land of the Rising Sun. An enigmatic American journalist (Taylor Kinney) fluent in Japanese accompanies her on her quest, and he wants to write a story about her search for her sister.
Life hasn’t been a lark for either Sara or Jess Price (Natalie Dormer of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2”) since their parents died when they were youngsters. According to their grandmother, a drunken driver killed their mother and father as the couple were coming home. Sara never saw the blood-splattered bodies because she kept her eyes shut, but her identical twin sister Jess had no such qualms. (Yes, we’re given a ghoulish glimpse of the corpses.) Predictably, Jess appropriated the dark look of a Goth girl and a self-destructive personality. On the other hand, Sara married and settled down with Rob (Eoin Macken of “Centurion”) who runs a restaurant. Meantime, Jess relocated to Japan, and a high school hired her to teach English as a second language. Sara and Jess have always had an uncanny psychic connection. One can sense when the other is in trouble. Suddenly, Jess disappears under mysterious circumstances, and the news that she was seen last wandering in the Aokigahara worries Sara. Our heroine books a flight to Tokyo. No sooner has Sara entered the Aokigahara Park Visitors Center than she learns that her sister’s body has been found. The center temporarily stores suicide case corpses until the next of kin claim them. Naturally, the body isn’t Jess because that would have deprived Sara as well as the audience of a dreary tour of murky terrain inhabited a faction of evil fiends.
While she is contemplating her options, Sara meets an attractive American travelogue writer, Aiden (Taylor Kinney of “Zero Dark Thirty”), at a nearby bar. She tells him about her wayward sister. Conveniently, Aiden knows a forest guide who checks the woods regularly for suicide victims. Sometimes, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa of “The Hidden Blade”) manages to locate lost people before they can take their lives and convinces them to refrain from suicide. Michi agrees to help Sara and Aiden search for Jess. Warning signs about sticking to the path clutter the Aokigahara. Reluctantly, Michi escorts them off the beaten path. Things take a turn for the best when Sara spots Jess’s tent, but Jess doesn’t return. Michi refuses to conduct the search after dusk because it is too easy to get lost. Headstrong Sara informs Michi that she is not leaving without his sister. Aiden surprises Michi with his decision to stay with Sara. Michi warns Sara that the evil spirits can play tricks on them and prompt them to perform acts that they could never imagine. “If you see something bad, it’s in your head.” Sara spends the night in that tent while Aiden sleeps by the fire. Things get really weird. Our heroine sees ghosts and pursues a disheveled Japanese school girl who says she knows Jess through the undergrowth. Eventually, Sara plunges into a hole that appears as if it were designed for Alice of “Alice in Wonderland” fame. At this point, you get fed up with Sara and her frantic antics. Similarly, Aiden incriminates himself with suspicious behavior after they stumble onto a cabin in the woods.
The best thing about “The Forest” is its singularly creepy setting. Ironically, most of action was lensed in Serbia’s Tara National Forest rather than in the Aokigahara. Japanese officials have banned film crews from shooting in the so-called “Sea of Trees” at the northwest foot of Mount Fuji. Over the years, thousands of depressed Japanese have embarked on pilgrimages there to commit suicide. According to Rob Gilhooly’s award-winning article in the “Japan Times,” suicide is not illegal in Japan as it is in most Western countries. Remember, Japan boasts a colorful history of defiant samurai who preferred to disembowel themselves through ritual suicide rather than face dishonor. Furthermore, Gilhooly has documented evidence that 54 out of the 247 Japanese who made their pilgrimage to Aokigahara in 2010 did so to end their suffering. Although they have chosen a picturesque setting with incredible cultural significance, Zada and his three writers never take appropriate advantage of it. Instead, they generate little more than hackneyed hokum with a minimal of blood and gore. Ultimately, “The Forest” contributes few insights into the tragic history of the Aokigahara, and Natalie Dormer’s sincere performance cannot compensate for the hopelessly incoherent storyline.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts