The Forest (2016)     ★½

At the base of Mount Fuji in Japan is where Aokigahara Forest can be found, a known place where people go to commit suicide, and a place where you too will wish you were instead of inside the theatre watching The Forest, this year’s sacrifice to the January God of awful cinema. One can set their watch by the certainty that each month of January will offer up terrible films, and The Forest is all too eager to please, taking a simple conceit and piling on contrivance after contrivance until no discernible sense remains.

The Forest stars Game Of Thrones‘ Natalie Dormer, in her attempt to break out as a lead actress, in a dual role as twin sisters Sara and Jess Price. Depressed due to a past tragedy, Jess disappears into the legendary forest, prompting Sara to go on a rescue mission, despite the protestations of everyone she meets along the way, adamant that Jess is still alive because, well, she can “feel” that her sister is still alive and in trouble. Twin stuff, ya know? Along the way Jess crosses paths with an American journalist who is so enamored with her story that he agrees to let her accompany one of his guided hikes through the forest in exchange for being able to write about it. But nothing is what it seems in the heart of the dark forest, as mysterious visions prompt Jess to question everything she thinks she knows, including whether her new journalist friend is really who he says he is.

Whatever intrigue is hinted at through the film’s opening is quickly squandered when it becomes apparent the entire premise is just a set up for random jump scares in the forest, where anything can happen at the screenwriter’s whim because it doesn’t have to be born out of logic, or have any narrative significance, which is usually what happens when material that is detailed enough for a short film is stretched to feature length. There is nothing here that warrants the screen time invested. The longer the film plays the more it feels the need to reveal and explain itself, and of course there exists the ever present incumbency on modern horror to proffer a twist, and the combination of the two, in revisiting a childhood tragedy, undermines the entire film and leaves the audience scratching their heads at the inanity of it all.

The Forest may be billed as a horror film, but it’s not scary in the least. It manages to build some tension through the early, atmospheric scenes inside the location itself, but there’s nothing here that wasn’t already accomplished in the SyFy film Grave Halloween from a couple years ago, another film about the Aokigahara Forest, which isn’t good either, but is better than this. The Forest is watered-down, assembly-line, junk horror that panders to the lowest common denominator, and not solely with respect to its genre trappings. It also wrongfully exploits xenophobia as comic relief, typified by one early scene when our American heroine first arrives in Japan and orders Sushi, only to see it moving around on her plate, upon which she promptly asks the waiter if they carry anything that isn’t still alive, as if a token attempt to assimilate and “do as they do in Rome” is just an excuse to reinforce the stereotypical trend of an us vs. them dynamic, particularly when it comes to catering to an American audience. Next time Sara, just order a California Roll, and shut your mouth.

The Verdict: Pan