There is something ominous in The Forest, and I mean in that in terms of setting and horror film history. Director Jason Zada’s first feature length film feels very familiar, recycling many of the tropes and scares of classic Japanese Horror (J-Horror) films such as Ringu and The Grudge (as well as their very capable American remakes). But that recycling should not be taken as a negative, for the film takes place in Japan, after all, and in the infamous Aokigahara Forest aka Suicide Forest. Thus The Forest is part ghost story, part mystery, but it is really about the sadness that consumes our title character Sara, played by Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, and the inner battle she faces as she looks for her twin sister, feared lost or dead within the woods.
We meet Sara as she receives news that her twin sister Jess (also played by Dorner), living and teaching in Japan, has gone missing and was last seen entering Aokigahara. Sara is told that the forest is notorious for the weary entering and never leaving, succumbing to their anxieties in grisly acts of suicides. Through an unexplained twin connection, Sara believes Jess is still alive and immediately travels to Japan to retrace her sister’s steps.
At a hotel outside the forest where Jess is last seen, Sara meets Aiden, a burly Australian travel writer played by Taylor Kinney. The two go through the usual machinations of strangers meeting at a bar, ultimately deciding to team up with a guide and park ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who will help Sara look for Jess. In return, Aiden will write about their story for his travel publication. Not surprisingly, within an afternoon, the three find Jess’s camp site, but Jess is nowhere to be found.
That’s when the familiar J-Horror ghosts, known as Yurei, haunt the rest of the film.
Sara and Jess, while close, are presented as complete opposites (Dormer as Sara sports the golden blonde locks we’ve come to know; Dormer’s Jess is practically a goth). What the two bury inside – call it the forest within – is the untimely death of their parents when the girls were very young. Jess bore witness to this death (I won’t spoil how they died, for Sara’s denial about this incident is part of her character development), and her trauma was expressed outwardly through reckless behavior and black hair dye. Sara did not witness her parents’ demise; instead, Sara buries the incident deep inside her psyche only to see her trauma played out within the forest as she searches for her sister. The zombie-like/demon-esque Yurei lead to her down wrong paths that clearly symbolize unsettled fears and anxieties of what happened to her and her family long ago. Yet the scares are more for the thrill of the audience than for the darker subject matter tying this film together.
Still, hardcore horror fans, especially J-Horror, will find this film worthy of their time. Familiar, yes. But cheap? Not necessarily. And performances by Dormer and Kinney, as well as Ozawa, will keep you guessing what is real and what is not. And while you’re unpacking that mystery, you may jump in your seat a few times.