This review WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS for the film to be discussed, if you do not want certain plot points or story spoilt, please do not read further.
The Aokigahara Forest in Japan is a real place, the story of the forest is deeply disturbing and unsettling, with many believing it to be one of the most haunted places on earth. Even those who do not believe in the supernatural and ghosts find the forest to be an unsettling place to go.
Aokigahara is known as the suicide forest, as each year dozens of people travel to the location to take their own lives. The suicide rates in Aokigahara are so high that the beginning of the forest trail has a sign urging people visiting the forest to think of their families, and to reach out to a suicide prevention helpline. Each year authorities perform annual body searches to retrieve the bodies of those who have taken their lives in the forest. Despite not publishing the figures any more to downplay the forest's association with suicide, based on previous numbers it is believed that between 50 to 100 people take their lives their each year.
It's hard to hear about the nature of Aokigahara without feeling a disturbed, and on paper it makes a perfect location for a horror story. Especially when you factor in the density of the forest, that cuts out almost all outside noise and daylight, and the area's large iron deposits that makes compass navigation impossible. The forest becomes a dark and spooky maze that even seasoned hikers can get lost in.
With so much real world fear, and the troubling nature of Aokigahara it's amazing that none of this atmosphere has managed to translate across onto film for 'The Forest'.
In the film 'The Forest' the filmmakers use Aokigahara's association with suicide to drive forward their narrative. When Sarah, played by Natalie Dormer, has been told that her sister Jess, also played by Dormer, has gone missing in Aokigahara she is determined to find her before she takes her own life and travels to Japan to try and find her.
Once in Japan Sarah searches through Aokigahara with the help of Aiden, a travel writer and journalist who thinks the search for Jess will give him an interesting article, and a local tour guide. The guide warns them that Aokigahara is home to many spirits of those who have taken their lives there in the past, and tells them not to trust everything that they see.
From here the trip into the forest becomes a descent into madness for Sarah as she tries desperately to find her missing sister, whilst being haunted by the spirits trapped in the forest.
There are some big problems with 'The Forest', its story and pacing are all over the place, and the characterisation shifts dramatically for no apparent reason, but the biggest flaw is that the film just isn't scary. For a film set in this location it should be easy to generate enough tension and fear to keep a 90 minute film going.
Instead, 'The Forest' relies on jump scares and things running at the camera screaming to create what should be scary moments, but just come across as overly loud extra's making arses of themselves. Jump scares can be good, but only if the film builds up the tension first, yet 'The Forest' fails at doing so.
There is one genuinely tense and creepy moment as Sarah is walking through the forest as a voice whispers to her to turn around again and again, with ghostly figures watching Sarah from the trees as she passes, getting gradually closer to her like grotesque, decomposing Weeping Angels. Despite the good build up, even this scene ends poorly by resorting to loud screams instead of the tension it had already built up as it's fairly poor conclusion.
'The Forest' tries to sell us on the idea that Sarah is descending into madness brought on by the spirits of the forest, and this could have worked if it was done over a longer time, but in the timeline of the film she's in the forest for a single night before the spirits drive her to breaking point, a single night where nothing much actually happened. Once again it feels like a misstep, as this idea would have worked if used over a longer period of time. As it is her sudden turn to madness feels very forced and unexpected, and makes her character a lot weaker for it.
The film tries to use a twist ending to surprise the audience, as we discover that Jess is alive and well and manages to make it out of the forest at the same time that the spirits have tricked Sarah into suicide, making her another of the ghosts that haunt Aokigahara. By the time this 'surprise' ending came about I had become so bored by the sudden shifts in character, the poor narrative and the terrible jump scares that I genuinely didn't care about the characters or story anymore.
'The Forest' is only 90 minutes long, but feels like a much longer film when actually watching it. It has bland and boring characters, whose actors aren't given the time or opportunity to do anything interesting with. The scares are few, far between and so dull that it hardly feels like a horror film at all. Unless you are an avid horror fan who feels like they need to see every horror film that comes out this one might be worth avoiding.