It’s hard to imagine a more unsettling setting for a horror movie than Aokigahara, the famed “suicide forest” of Japan to which scores of pilgrims travel every year to end their lives. At the edge of the woods — which, per Japanese mythology, are rife with demons — is a sign urging those contemplating this most final of acts to think of their loved ones and reconsider.
That evocative backdrop is largely squandered in Jason Zada’s The Forest. Natalie Dormer does double duty as an American who flies halfway around the world in search of her twin sister — an English teacher in Tokyo who was last seen entering the woods — and as the missing sibling herself, glimpsed mostly in flashback. Sara is blonde and well-adjusted; Jess is troubled and dependent, as indicated by her dark hair and vaguely goth look. “We’re identical twins,” Sara tells a skeptic who knows all too well why people trek to Aokigahara. “If she were dead I would just know.” This sisterly intuition leads our heroine to believe that her other half is merely on a suicide-forest walkabout, exorcising her own demons by braving those already lurking within Aokigahara.
With the Game of Thrones diaspora spreading ever further into movies of varying quality, Dormer’s casting here is fascinating. Billed eighth on the show’s most recent season, the actress steps comfortably into her leading role(s), excelling especially in quieter scenes that build tension and soak us in mood. She’s let down by the demands of a tired script, though she makes the most of it, and in a few bright spots she almost self-reflexively comments on its absurdities — “You just stumbled across it right now?” she asks when her too-friendly guide (Taylor Kinney) claims to have come across a cabin with a working radio.
Aokigahara is said to be haunted by the restless spirits of the elderly and infirm whose families fell on hard times in centuries past and felt they had no choice but to leave their loved ones to die — an act of forced euthanasia known as ubasute that was dramatized to great effect in 1958’s The Ballad of Narayama. These woods lie in the shadow of Mount Fuji, an arresting national symbol that draws the despondency below into even sharper relief. The Forest mentions this mythological context in passing without bothering to explore any of it, which is among its many disappointments — Aokigahara’s mythos is infinitely more interesting than the narrative the filmmakers have built around it.
According to Sara’s guide, there are a few things to consider when traversing this dense forest: Anything strange you see off the main path isn’t real; anyone who brings a tent with them is on the fence about doing the deed. The hallucinatory aspect intensifies by nightfall, as tends to be the case in haunted locales, and the visions one is subjected to often dredge up the seer’s most repressed fears and traumas. Sara ventures forth armed with naught but a cellphone flashlight and her quasi-mystical connection to her sister, which is to say that she’s woefully unprepared for what awaits.
Still, before devolving into the same series of demonic faces and jump-scares we’ve seen time and again, The Forest is a genuinely unnerving mood piece. Zada luxuriates in Aokigahara’s ominous atmosphere, with bodies hanging from trees waiting to be discovered by passersby and abandoned tents making it clear that their former inhabitants chose to make this their final resting place. Difficult to navigate and so thick that they block out all sound coming from beyond their own borders, these woods are intrinsically terrifying. In filtering those unique qualities through an overly familiar genre sensibility, the filmmakers have rendered them anything but.
Directed by Jason Zada
Opens January 8