Directed by Jason Zada
Starring Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Eoin Macken, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki
Released on January 8, 2016
Running time: 1h 33m
West of Tokyo, Japan, the Aokigahara Forest, which is also known as the Sea of Trees, is a fourteen-square-mile pine forest that sits at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. It is lush with plant life all year long. The forest ebbs and flows with the blowing wind almost like an ocean. The forest is a dense place, being unique in being able to shut out all but the natural sounds of the forest itself. You can get lost quite easily. However, it is still a popular tourist destination.
But the Aokigahara Forest has a sinister side. It’s not enough that the forest is devoid of almost all animal life to such an extent that even the sound of birds chirping is absent, giving the forest an eerie silence. But it is one of the most popular spots for suicide in the world. For decades, increasing numbers of bodies were found every year. Since 2010, the local officials have refused to publish the number of suicides per year in an attempt to downplay the forest’s association with suicide.
And it’s not just the suicides. Up into the 19th century, ubasute was practiced at the Aokigahara Forest: during times of drought or famine, an ailing or elderly relative was carried into the forest and left to die. The forest is also reputedly haunted by the yurei of not only those left there to die but those who have committed suicide there as well. For those of you who don’t know, yurei are essentially sentient ghosts who died in the grip of powerful negative emotion. For example, Kayako Saeki in Ju-on (The Grudge) sans lust for vengeance.
I intentionally gave you this background information, because Jason Zada clearly only read that the forest is named Aokigahara and that it’s a popular suicide spot and had a script written with just that info. This son of a bitch (I only reserve foul titles for people who deserve them) decided to capitalize on this arboreal mystery by exploiting the Aokigahara forest, its association with suicide, and the innumerable dead in his terrible movie, The Forest.
Upon seeing the trailers, I thought, This could be pretty okay. Great care would have to be taken, but this could potentially become Grave Encounters in Japan.
And then the movie came out and received very negative reviews. But I was still willing to keep my mind open. And when the movie finally came to the theater nearest to my apartment at college, I decided to check it out. I went and saw it at 9:15 on a Friday night after I had finished up with classes for the day. I bought my large popcorn with extra butter, my large icee, and two bags of watermelon Sour Patch Kids. Come on, it was a Friday; I was done with classes for the week; I deserved to splurge. I sat down in the only unoccupied row in the packed theater full of high school and college kids looking for a fun, adrenaline-filled horror fix. The movie began, and it took me about fifteen to twenty minutes and several cheap jumpscares that elicited deafening screams from the audience for me to realize, Oh. It’s gonna be one of those movies.
The movie essentially became a sucker punch to the d!ck, with every jumpscare being a sucker punch to the gut, culminating in a kidney squeeze. That bad.
Our story begins as Sara Price (Dormer) receives a phone call from the Japanese police, who tell her that her twin sister Jess went into the Aokigahara Forest and hasn’t come out, and that she is presumed to be dead. Upon learning this, Sara plans to go to the forest herself and search for her sister. When her fiancé Rob (Macken) is concerned about what Sara’s plans are, Sara cites the “sixth sense” that identical twins have, so that if one of them dies, the other will immediately know through some sort of preternatural bullhonky that is referred to ad nauseam throughout the movie. Sara flies to Tokyo and stops to sleep at a hotel.
By the way, as Sara is just about to get out of the taxi at the hotel, our movie treats us to our first jumpscare: a homeless man puts his face on the window, which somehow makes a much louder sound than should be possible in this situation. I smirked and snickered at it, thinking, Ooooh, you sly little scamp! I was still settling into the movie, and hadn’t had time to form an opinion yet. But I was willing to wait it out and see what became of the movie.
And all of this has happened in the first ten minutes. Talk about being allergic to exposition.
Movies need an acceptable amount of exposition. We need to establish our setting. We need to get to know our characters. Our story needs to be established and needs to start moving. But The Forest takes so little time to establish itself that I found myself asking, What do I even know about the character of Sara? What do I know about her relationship with Jess? Well, we’re told about a horrific event earlier in their lives that’s totally not going to be a part of the plot later, and we’ve been told that Jess is a rebel kid and that Sara always needs to get her out of trouble, but these were only referred to with a few lines. Who even are Sara and Jess? What are they like? Are they nice young women? Do Sara and Jess share the unconditional love that siblings share? We haven’t even had time to even meet Jess, let alone get to know her, let alone actually fear for her because she’s lost in the Aokigahara forest. Develop your characters, movie.
And that first night, we are subjected to the film’s first “scary” sequence. Sara tries to open a door, but the doorknob is broken. She starts walking away from the door, only to hear it opening behind her. She opens the door, goes down into a basement, and sees a yellow tent with a light on inside of it, casting a silhouette onto the tent wall. Sara kneels down in front of it, opens the tent, and is surprised to see her younger sister as a child. And then Young Jess opens her mouth and her face contorts demonically as an ungodly loud instrumental sting plays. And then Sara wakes up. That past sequence was all a dream. It was then that I finally realized, Oh. It’s gonna be that type of movie.
And that is how the majority of the scares in this movie play out. I’m not kidding when I say that the only scares in this movie play out like this. Flash a scary face on the screen for a split second and accompany it with a scream, bang, or instrumental sting for a cheap jumpscare! And have most of the jumpscares all be in Sara’s dreams! That is not how you make a scary movie, movie! Though there is a surprising lack of a buildup in the soundtrack with every jumpscare, the movie seems to be depending on ambient noises to rack up suspense. But when the actual jumpscare is executed in the exact same way every time, it’s no longer scary! It’s tedious and annoying and frustrating and infuriating! And by the tenth time you’ve seen those yurei, they’re about as scary as a grilled tuna fish sandwich. I will again use Last Shift as a contemporary example of how to effectively use some jumpscares to benefit your movie. For a more extensive description of Last Shift, check out my review of The Gallows.
How mentally unstable must Sara be to be experiencing these “scary” things when she hasn’t even entered the damn forest yet? It must be mental instability, because these pre-forest-entrance jumpscares have absolutely no context! They have literally zero reason to be there! They feel like they belong in a crappy haunted house!
Anyway, Sara wakes up, gets on a train to the forest, and goes to a visitors’ center there. She asks the owner if she’s seen Jess, showing her a picture on her phone. The owner shows Sara the newly found bodies, leading to another, smaller jumpscare, but none of the bodies are Jess’s. Throughout this scene, Sara has been getting severely limited backstory on the forest. She is told to stay on the path, that she should never leave the path, and that if she does, the yurei will feed off the sadness in her heart and will accost her with psychological torture with the intent of driving her to suicide.
Sara stops by a different hotel that night, meeting Aiden (Kinney) at a bar. He’s a reporter from Australia (sans accent) that’s planning to write a story on the Aokigahara forest. They get drunk, and Sara tells him about why she’s here, and even tells him about her parents’ demise in a drunk driving accident, which blatantly contradicts the flashback sequence in which her parents’ cause of death is a murder-suicide instigated by one of them. This contradiction could have been an interesting plot point, but it is barely expanded upon. Jess had witnessed the aftermath, but Sara had not. Aiden, with Sara’s permission, starts to record her backstory on why she is going to this forest. Aiden offers to add her to his expedition into the forest, led by a park ranger named Michi (Ozawa).
By the way, Sara, you don’t have to go to so much trouble to show what Jess looks like. You can just point to your own face, saying that she looks just like you but has obviously-dyed-brown hair.
It’s in these past few scenes that I understood why some people think this movie to be racist. No, not the “whitewashing”; that argument has such little base, and such is easily eroded. Rather, I’m talking about subtle jabs at the Japanese. Sara is clearly disgusted at her freshly made sushi that cartoonishly wriggles about on her plate, and nearby Japanese women snicker at her for her American mannerisms. I also couldn’t help but notice that these Japanese folk act far from human. They all seem to have sinister intentions. Those that don’t are either Michi, jerks, or are just overall unhelpful.
After another “scary” sequence in which we’re supposed to be scared by an old woman, Sara meets up with Aiden and Michi the next morning and they begin their excursion. Despite Aiden and Michi telling her that Jess is almost certainly dead, Sara rejects their claims and again cites that “sixth sense”.
And this is where the plot slows to a crawl, if not stopping entirely. So little actually happens from here until maybe the last fifteen minutes of the movie.
By the way, if you couldn’t tell already from the yurei feeding off of sadness in people’s hearts and the fact that Sara lost her parents, it’ll be made quite clear to you that Sara is essentially destined to be cannon fodder.
After several hours of searching and Sara shouting “Jess? Jess, where are you?” ad nauseam, during which they find a body whose spirit is totally not going to haunt Sara in the future, the group actually comes across Jess’s tent. However, it is getting late, and Michi says that it is dangerous to stay in the forest overnight. Sara decides to follow the common horror trope of “characters making idiotic decisions” by refusing to leave and staying at Jess’s tent overnight. And, astonishingly, Aiden stays there too. Sigh. Okay. Michi leaves, saying that he’ll be back tomorrow at noon.
And it was here that I checked my watch and realized that the movie has already been going for an hour. How the eff did the time fly by so fast? And the movie’s only 93 minutes long, including the credits. What the hell is the movie planning to do with its last half hour? I just had to deal with this horrendously idiotic situation when I reviewed The Gallows! The movie should be starting its buildup to the climax by now! In fact, there is no climax in The Forest! The buildup just starts to happen when the movie ends! Jeez! Even The Haunting of Molly Hartley had a climax! It was a stupid, insulting climax, but a climax nonetheless!
Also, get used to Sara making idiotic decisions that clearly contradict common sense. These decisions happened so often that any potential sympathy I felt for Sara immediately vanished, slapping me in the face as they left. Read further and be astounded.
Following a brief conversation with Aiden, Sara goes to sleep. And here’s where things start to get suuuuuper spoopy! After another spoopy sequence in which Sara is accosted by three white-gown-wearing women, somehow amounting to three jumpscares, Sara wakes up. She hears rustling in the bushes. Thinking it’s Jess, she runs after the rustling, only to discover that it’s a young Japanese schoolgirl, who not only knew Jess, but tells her not to trust Aiden. The schoolgirl runs off, and when Sara runs after her, she falls and loses her, and is found by Aiden.
The next day, Sara and Aiden make another stupid decision to not wait for Michi, and head back by themselves. As they hike back in what they presume is the right direction, the movie even resorts to have a river change direction and maggots briefly appear and disappear on a cut on Sara’s arm just so we are getting the idea that the supernatural forces of the Aokigahara Forest are screwing with Sara’s head. Sara starts becoming suspicious of Aiden, and after an argument during which Aiden reveals that he just did this so he could get to know the pretty girl at the bar (that’s just desperate), Sara demands that Aiden give her his phone. Aiden complies, and when Sara searches the phone, she finds a picture of Jess. Aiden denies knowing Jess. Calling bullhonky, Sara runs off into the forest alone.
Sometime around now, Michi returns to the tent to find Aiden and Sara missing. He leaves and forms a police search party to search for them.
And I totally called it. In another spoopy sequence, the yurei of the hanged man from earlier starts haunting Sara, coming up closer behind her as it repeatedly tells Sara to turn around. Strangely, the clearly male yurei has a woman’s voice. When the yurei is literally right behind Sara, Sara takes off running. She doesn’t get far before she falls into a hole leading to an underground cave that she should have seen coming from a mile away. She’s a freaking clod. She falls about eight or nine feet and is knocked out.
Sara wakes up, and after finding a Viewmaster toy that leads to another spoopy sequence, she encounters the schoolgirl from earlier. The schoolgirl tells Sara that she can lead her to Jess, and Sara follows her. And of course, thanks to another spoopy sequence, we learn that (whoop-de-frip-de-doo) the schoolgirl is actually a yurei. Who knew? After running back to where she fell, she sees Aiden at the mouth of the hole. I call bullhonky. Aiden pulls Sara out, saying that he’s found a ranger’s station with a radio. Sara calls Aidan out on this obviously too convenient event, but she still goes with him.
Here’s where the plot finally starts to move forward. With about fifteen minutes left in the movie.
They arrive at the ranger’s station, and Aiden tries to get the radio working. Sara hears Jess’s voice whispering to her from behind a door. When Sara goes up to the door and tries to whisper to Jess, a piece of paper and a pencil slides out under the door. Sara gets a message from Jess that Aiden will kill her. Sara finds a knife, holds it to Aidan’s neck, and demands that he lets Jess out. Aiden pretends to comply, and when he moves to “get the key from his boot”, he attacks Sara, trying to get the knife out of her hand. She stabs him in the chest, killing him, but not before he admits that he never knew Jess, and that he didn’t lock her in that basement. Sara realizes that the events implicating Aiden were all hallucinations. But then the door opens up behind her. Sara, like an idiot, actually opens the door, seeing that it leads to a basement. When she descends, she is met with a younger version of herself, and essentially a retread of the events that happened the night her parents died. She sees the corpses of her parents, and covers the eyes of her younger self. In another spoopy sequence, the corpse of her father gets up, lunges for Sara, and grabs her wrist. But she uses her newfound knife to cut his fingers away from her wrists.
It is now that we see that Jess (also played by Dormer) is alive. Huh? Well, it’s no surprise, considering how ridiculously off-the-rails this movie has been for the last twenty minutes. Sara, ignoring her vision, runs upstairs and out of the ranger station. Jess starts running in an arbitrary direction. Sara hears her and runs after her. The search party led by Michi is well into the woods, and is being called off for the night. As Jess runs and Sara follows, Sara repeatedly calls out to Jess, but Jess does not respond, even when Sara is twenty feet behind her. And then Sara is interrupted by the schoolgirl yurei. And this is where the plot tries and fails to twist. It turns out that when Sara cut her father’s fingers away from her wrist, she was really cutting deeply into her own wrist (which shows a surprisingly small amount of blood and that Sara has cut across the stream rather than down, leaving an easily nonfatal injury) and is actually dying back in the basement in the ranger’s station. Sara, knowing that she is dead, is pulled into the ground by several yurei, of which at least one tries to cop a feel. Hey, after Dormer played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, I can’t blame whoever did that.
Jess finds the search party just before they leave, and is rescued. But, through her “sixth sense”, she knows that Sara is dead. She gets into a police car and is driven away. Michi, who had headed the search party, takes one last look at the forest, only to see Sara, now a yurei. She lunges at the screen in the final spoopy sequence before it cuts to black. And then credits. Of course the movie was going to end with a final jumpscare.
Aaaaaah! This movie is 3spoopy5me!
By the way, none of the movie was actually shot in the Aokigahara forest. It was all shot at Serbia’s Tara National Forest. Ouch.
In 2014, the criminally underrated horror movie As Above, So Below used its creepy location – the catacombs under Paris – and its dark and claustrophobic atmosphere and its underreliance on jumpscares to deliver one of the best horror experiences of that year. The Forest neglected to do this. Its location could have been used to create atmosphere and ultimately a good product, but it was squandered by its overreliance on cheap-ass jumpscares.
The cinematography was just “there”, and felt like it wasn’t allowed to transform the Aokigahara Forest into an abstract maze rather than just a collection of trees, branches, leaves, and pine needles. The CGI monsters looked amazingly unconvincing. Even the monsters that were actually there aren’t visually scary once you get a good look at them.
I was surprised to see that Natalie Dormer, who has been acclaimed for her roles in Game of Thrones and The Tudors, looked seriously bored, and her bored, tired, monotone performance matched that. In fact, she looked rather lost in a movie like this. Taylor Kinney looked like a Chris Pine wannabe and gave a subpar performance that sounded exactly like he was channeling his inner Chris Pine.
The movie could have transformed itself into something more than predictable, repetitive, trope-filled, clichéd garbage that relies solely on jumpscares to scare its audience. It could have used its story, its characters, its acting, and its cinematography to create some fascinating mind tricks, but when the screenplay is downright idiotic, it fails. Once Sara actually enters the titular forest, the plot just stops, and from there on out, it’s just Sara running through the forest as yurei pop out at her from behind the trees. The movie is just setup for crap that never actually happens. The red herring involving Aiden could have been smart, but it never went anywhere. It was a hopelessly incoherent plot that didn’t even give us extensive background info on the forest itself. And when the plot finally picks up in the last fifteen minutes, it’s too little, too late.
It could have been fantastic psychological horror. The movie could have dealt with Sara, Aiden, and Michi getting lost in the forest and the forest screwing with their heads. As I said earlier, it could have been Grave Encounters in Japan and in a forest. The movie could have used its nighttime sequences to its advantage, using its darkness as a place where our heroes can get hopelessly lost, and where evil creatures can lurk and hide. But it never played on the fear of the dark and of the things hiding in it. It never played on the psychological aspect, even though that idea had clearly been handed to them on a silver platter. It also never understood the idea of how to properly execute a jumpscare.
When I went to see this at the theater near my apartment, the theater was packed. And with every jumpscare, the audience actually screamed. I didn’t. In fact, I just got angry. Typical college students raised on terrible horror trash. While I will admit that the jumpscares are indeed startling, they are just that – startling. And there is a major difference between scary and startling. Also, each jumpscare was unnecessarily loud, practically deafening.
I was not so much sad but stunned to see that The Forest‘s user score, rather than critic score, on Metacritic was a 7.1/10. I looked at each of the comments to determine why. It was one thing to see people make excuses about why this movie is good to them. But it’s quite another thing to see the users badmouthing critics. One user claimed that it “made [him] never wanna [sic] go into the woods ever again. One of [his] favorite horror films of all time. Don’t get why the critics don’t like it … [they] hate everything that’s good [.]” Another user said that “This movie was more about mental scary not horror scary [sic]. Most critics…just didn’t have the mental capacity to understand this movie.” Another user “[didn’t] understand why it got such terrible reviews.” This user went on to not only agree with the previous user, but compared The Forest with the sacred Psycho and The Haunting! And then, of course, “the reviews of this film are another example of critics disdaining the horror genre simply because they don’t understand it.”
Effective psychological horror? What? Where was that? Point to me that moment when we really felt like we were breaking down with Sara. Was it the point when the river changed course for no reason? Was it the point when the Viewfinder toy showed up just for a cheap jumpscare? Was it the red herring involving Aiden that went nowhere? Was it the terrible plot twist that didn’t even try to be decent? Where? Tell me where!
Grave Encounters, though being not-that-fantastic found footage, managed to deftly deal with the idea of psychologically breaking down because that was the plot of the third act! Lance and his companions were trapped in the asylum, and not only was it not letting them leave, but it kept morphing to create even more dead ends and endless halls! The overpowering sense of despair and doom set in as the movie actually took time and thought to develop this plot thread! And this plot thread had been set up by a creepy setting, a dripping-with-terror atmosphere, convincing acting, and scares that either were totally unexpected or actually had proper buildup! It wasn’t desperately cobbled together by an untalented scriptwriter to appease an insipid director!
And considering The Forest’s subject matter, it is very exploitative of what this forest is known for. The Aokigahara Forest is a sad, depressing, lonely place. The people who commit suicide there are also sad, depressed, and lonely. And now they get to be seen as scary monsters, with the forest itself being portrayed as an evil place. It is ungodly disrespectful of the poor souls that have died in the labyrinth that is the Aokigahara forest. Japan is a crowded, suffocating place, filled with the high stress levels of Japan’s overexpecting society of rigorous conformity. Not only is this a recipe for disaster for those who are physically incapable of handling the stress of Japan’s overwhelming work culture or those who are unemployed, but this is a recipe for disaster for people with mental illness, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and autism. You know, people like me. If people want to get away from society, the Aokigahara forest is one of few shelters from the societal storm. In Japan, it is even more embarrassing than in America to receive mental treatment. If you commit suicide in a subway, your family will have to foot the cleanup bill. People who work in the subway even have to have sunlight-imitating lights placed down there to prevent depression from overworking and not going outside. The Aokigahara forest is an escape for people who need a place to die so they won’t (in their eyes) be a burden on their family or society. These people see suicide as a reasonable solution. Japan’s yearly suicide rate ranks at a staggeringly high seventeenth place on a list of countries with the highest suicide rate, compared to America’s fiftieth place. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death in Japan. The Aokigahara forest is not a scary place filled with vengeful ghosts. It is a sad, solemn place, and the dead deserve to be respected, rather than dehumanized. And The Forest is disgusting in how it portrays the many dead in such an insulting way.
I’m not surprised that The Forest was shot in a location thousands of miles away. The Japanese wouldn’t have been too happy with the subject matter of what was being shot at one of their well-known locations. And I’m pretty sure that the yurei in the forest wouldn’t have been too happy either. In fact, I’m sure that these spirits that they showed in their movie would have terrorized the cast and crew until they left or died.
For your own sake, Jason Zada, don’t exploit the dead again. Ever. Don’t be like Olatunde Osunsanmi with his farce The Fourth Kind. It will backfire in your face.
Sometime in the future, I actually plan to visit the Aokigahara forest. I plan to burn a lot of incense in an attempted show of respect for the spirits of these dead.
They deserve it.
Final verdict: 0 out of 5 stars.