Here’s the official marketing blurb: A woman goes into Japan’s Suicide Forest to find her twin sister, and confronts supernatural terror.
The Japanese Suicide Forest is something I heard about several years ago, and yet when I heard that someone was making a horror movie about it the premise still felt somehow simultaneously too soon and too late to me, in that it felt like an attempt to cash in on the latest timely thing, in the same way I would react poorly to hearing that someone was making a Slenderman movie. Once something becomes well-known enough to merit a mainstream movie, you generally know something has run its course. Basically, any time a niche topic that the truly faithful have known about for a while erupts into mainstream awareness and someone tries to make a wide-release commercial movie out of it, it tends to suck, because the people that go about the task (or at least bankroll it) understand neither what makes things Spooky nor the material they are using.
In a lot of ways, if I’d heard of a movie about the Suicide Forest three or four years ago, I’d have felt a little better about it, because the topic was more niche then, and consequently anyone who noticed it would be closer to the type of fan who would understand it well enough to make a movie that didn’t compromise itself the way most Hollywood horror does.
So this brings me to The Forest. I have to give the movie credit for its use of setting. I’m a sucker for setting. The forest itself seems properly foreboding without seeming campy. The locals near the forest seem properly scared of it without it seeming overwrought. The choice to show the main character walking a great distance from her train station to the visitor center worked very well to establish a sense of isolation that worked in the film’s favor. I’ve never been to Mount Fuji, and I didn’t look into the production of the film to see if it was shot on location or just some forest somewhere, but I certainly was willing to believe that I was seeing a wet forest at the base of Japan’s most famous mountain. The foliage was a verdant green that dripped continually with mist, giving the entire surroundings a sheen of the fantastic, while also subtly hinting that the predominant temperature would best be described as “cool” rather than warm; the substance that comes to mind from my time spent in The Forest isn’t wood smoke, but ice.
In short, the setting feels extremely authentic, and deeply integrated into the concept of the movie, rather than as a pretty afterthought that has no actual importance to the film.
The film is strong in establishing a sense of disnormality. There is a scene early in the movie in which the heroine, Sara, visits the last bastion of civilization before the forest. This was probably the most effective scene in the film. She arrives at the visitor center, and the proprietor, a very polite woman, understands instantly why Sara has come—or at least thinks she understands. Sara shows her a picture of her missing sister, the proprietor immediately responds “Yes, we found her!” Sara is surprised, almost overjoyed, and it takes her a few moments to understand what the proprietor actually meant. The proprietor leads her downstairs into the basement, which she says they use as a morgue because it’s cool. Said morgue consists of bodies wrapped in sheets and laid out on tables. That’s it. Except for the very bored man sitting on a chair outside the room reading. Apparently he is there to keep the corpses company to prevent them from becoming vengeful.
What is disturbing about the scene is one, that suicides in the forest are so common that there is actually an established and sanctioned system in place to deal with it; two, that the system is in place but it is so very crude; and three, that the way the system is implemented makes gestures such as the man keeping the corpses company, but there isn’t any actual empathy, as if such rituals serve no purpose for the living beyond the purely practical: it is the spiritual equivalent of washing your hands before you eat, nothing more. This point is made subtly, but then driven home when the proprietor is about to lift the sheet over Sara’s sister so that she can identify the body when the bell at the desk rings. The proprietor apologizes and then leaves Sara alone in the morgue to go help another guest. This is especially jarring because this is Japan. The Japanese are probably the most polite and respectful people on the entire planet, and it is not a feigned politeness; they really are simply wonderful and kind people. Quite simply, this would never happen in Japan. But it happens here, and it works, and is believable, because it seems to be an embodiment of the casual acceptance of the reality of the forest. The horror comes from the fact that those living with it have adapted to it and go about their daily lives like nothing is wrong.
Sara of course uncovers the sheet herself. It turns out not to be her sister, so she leaves the morgue. The man keeping the corpses company doesn’t even look up as she walks by him.
When she gets upstairs the proprietor doesn’t seem at all upset or concerned that she never went back down, but simply says “oh, good!” when Sara tells her that it wasn’t her sister.
Up to there, the movie is on good, solid footing. The setting has been introduced, it’s isolated but not too isolated, it’s been established that the place is a little off, complete with the locals giving her unaffected warnings, and she checks into a local inn and has a drink. She meets a man who agrees to be her guide, and on the next day they set off. So far, the narrative structure is outstanding. The time spent on the setup is almost always worth it, and the lack of it is often one of my chief complaints about horror movies.
(There is another scene in which Sara visits her sister’s workplace, where Jess had been working as a schoolteacher. When Sara walks through the door, the students freak out, because they think they’ve seen a yurei. As all of this is being explained to Sara in the principal’s office by one of the frightened students, the student is positively emphatic that a yurei is not simply a spirit but an “angry” spirit. This scene did a lot to establish the mood early on, and must have been traumatizing to Sara to have her very appearance be the cause of such terror.)
Once in the forest itself, the film takes further advantage of its setting. Everywhere are signs of visitors who have come into the forest to die. There is a man who makes regular patrols of the forest, not to kick people out, but simply to find the bodies. People leave strands of caution tape or rope behind them, leading the way back out of the forest if they decide not to go through with the plan—or to lead searchers to their bodies if they do not come out. There are rules in the forest: after 48 hours, the police assume a missing person has completed his or her plan. If someone brings a tent into the forest, it means they aren’t sure yet. These moments are chilling. Again, the horror comes from the normalization of the unthinkable.
Unfortunately, this is where the film exhausts its merits. The primary means the supernatural aspects of the forest operate through is by trickery. This is a novel approach and a nice variation from a standard haunting. The problem is that this isn’t the first film in the last several years to do this, and The Forest is not an improvement in execution. Oculus treads the same ground far more ably, for example. The Forest suffers primarily from a lack of believability. Contrast this to Oculus, whose greatest strength was the believability of the film because of the painstaking efforts taken by the characters to protect themselves from illusions and counter the fallibility of their own senses with objective, scientific measurements. (Unfortunately for the characters, all the careful, objective measurements in the world can’t protect us from the fact that we have to use our fallible senses to view the data.)
The Forest? None of that. Despite going into the forest with the obligatory “if you see anything strange, remember that it’s not real,” Sara is credulous to the point of absurdity, but absurdity isn’t the movie’s direction—if a film that is taking itself seriously (which is the better kind), absurdity will ruin it. And so it does here. There are only a couple of instances where Sara questions her senses, but she seems utterly baffled by the trickery, and the few places she does question it seem completely random, and does not build into any greater sense of awareness of how the forest works; her worst mistakes come after she’s already seen the horrible proof of how the forest is tricking her. And when she realizes what she’s done because of it, she seems even more surprised than ever.
Finally, the whole twin thing. The movie tries to generate emotional gravitas by making this a powerful story about sisterhood and twinhood. One of the twins—Sara—has always been the responsible one, and her sister has always been the screwup. They claim to have this sort of “twin sense,” where they just know when something is wrong. Sara tries to explain to someone that this isn’t any kind of spiritual thing or a supernatural thing, it’s just that “twins know.” It falls utterly flat.
The final blow to the film comes in the last five seconds of the film when they decide to end on a jump scare that is not only completely gratuitous but seems wildly out of character both with the film as a whole and the characters in it. I can’t say more without spoiling, but you’ll know what I mean when you see it. Ending the movie on that note seemed like such a failure of vision on the part of the director, who does seem to know how to make a good movie. The Forest has flaws—serious ones—but the movie had managed to end on an emotionally powerful note, and if the film had ended just thirty seconds sooner, staring at the blank wall of all the ghosts of the dead that had given themselves over to the forest, it would have ended on a note that was both sobering and Spooky. But it doesn’t, and for that, I feel that I am justified in levelling a charge of cowardice against the director. He should have had the confidence to stand behind the movie he made, but instead he felt the need to end on a cheap note. And yes, that is enough to ruin the film.
The setting and buildup were great, but idiotic writing and directing choices (the acting was pretty good) hold this movie back, which is too bad. It could have been a much better film.
Final verdict, 2/5.
IMDB Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3387542/