I’ve written before about how wimpy I am at horror movies. I don’t know that I’m “scared” easily, but I’m exceedingly jumpy. A loud sound, sudden movement, or anything of that sort will launch me out of my chair at least a foot, and I’ll land back not excited or scared but angry. This is nearly as true in real life as it is in a movie theater. I don’t like jump scares, because I don’t like jumping. If a movie is going to affect me, I want to be affected. I want it to worm its way into my brain not because it followed the perfect formula for maximum airtime but because it did something so interesting and disquieting that I can’t get it out of my head. If I’m going to sleep with my lights on, it shouldn’t be because I’m worried about things saying, “Boo.” I should be worried about the things that will sit by my bed while I sleep, just watching me. They could do something at any time, but they want to savor the moment. That’s true horror.
The Forest is not true horror. It is a series of perfectly telegraphed, infuriatingly executed jump scares wrapped up in a narrative that is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. There was potential in there, somewhere, to tell a story that could have gotten into my head, but it was squandered. Completely and utterly.
Director: Jason Zada
Release Date: January 8, 2016
I knew I was going to dislike The Forest from the moment I was reminded of its premise. It’s about the Aokigahara Forest, one of two films about that in the works (the other is directed by Gus Van Sant, and by default I expect it will be the best Aokigahara-focused film of 2016). Aokigahara is a forest in Japan, the most popular suicide spot there and one of the most popular in the world. There are demons there, too, at least as far as the film is concerned. But none of that bothers me. I mean, who doesn’t love a good Japanese horror film? Problem is, it’s not a Japanese horror film. It’s a film about a white girl, a blonde white girl named Sarawho doesn’t speak Japanese going to find her not-blonde white girl twin sister, Jess, who may or may not speak Japanese.
Jess went into the Suicide Forest (it’s actually called that, by the way), presumably to commit suicide. Sara goes to find her, because her twin sense continued to tingle. If something was really going to go wrong, she’d know because the twin sense would go silent. It’s a thing that twins have. (So they say.) It’s somewhere between familial bonding, quantum entanglement, and supernatural garbage. My instinct is that it falls towards that latter one, because that’s really the best way to explain the film.
It makes me legitimately angry that I spent a fair portion of The Forest looking away from the screen. The easiest example to point to takes place… at some point, I don’t even remember when. Sarah is walking down a hallway, and the lights are flickering on and off. As she goes down, ON, flicker, OFF, pause. ON, flicker, OFF, pause. It’s quiet. You know and have known since she got into the hallway that at some point it’s going to flicker on and something is going to jump out at the screen. You know it because that’s how these things work, when they have nothing else to show. And The Forest does it. And I jumped a bit. I was looking just offscreen, but the sound and the sudden movement got me up a bit. And I was infuriated.
Years ago, I reviewed a film called Replicas (later retitled In Their Skin). A commenter chastised me for being “defeated by that mediocre film.” I stand by my glowing assessment of that film, but that comment has stuck with me ever since. It’s basically how I feel about my reaction to The Forest. In the climactic scenes, the ones where things are supposedly “scary,” I was able to watch the film just fine, because it wasn’t jumpy any more. It was just “atmospheric” or whatever. But, of course, it wasn’t. I stared at it, almost feeling bad for what didn’t even seem like an honest attempt at horror. I have trouble imagining anyone feeling the slightest twinge of fear while watching that final sequence. (The only legitimately unsettling sequence was in a cave with an overly happy Japanese girl. Her performance made me rather tense, though the ultimate place that encounter went didn’t even make sense with the narrative, so that one moment of potential good was ruined.)
In those jump moments, I braced myself for the impact. I tensed my body, looked away from the screen, and hated everything about it. Every single scare was so obviously telegraphed literally minutes before it happened. And other people in the theater jumped each time as well. It felt so clinical, so scientific. Like they had focus tested exactly how many times the light should flicker before the elderly woman popped out. They knew how to get a rise out of people, and they knew that there was nothing else to get people into the theater. They could put out a trailer of just people jumping, like they did for Paranormal Activity all those years ago, and maybe a few people would go see it. But it’s a cheat. You take a forest. You take an issue like suicide. You tell people that the forest doesn’t kill you, it makes you kill yourself – which is a fascinating concept, by the way, and I would like to see it play out in a better film. At some point, it threatens to deliver on that concept, but the actual execution is so shoddy that it’s barely worth considering (and, like so much else, it can’t stick the landing).
When I got out of the theater, I had these grand visions of writing a multi-thousand word essay on the nature of fear, but as I look back on it, The Forest doesn’t deserve that. It doesn’t really even deserve the thought that I’ve already given it. Don’t see The Forest. If it doesn’t make you angry, then you’ll just be bored, wishing you’d seen The Revenant instead. That’s sort of a horror movie, and it also takes place in the woods. And it’s awesome. Go see The Revenant. Forget The Forest exists. By the time this has posted, I know I will have.