It has become a tradition over the past decade for each new year to commence with the release of a horror movie of deeply questionable merit. These January kick-off films have included a few entries with some moderate, arguable virtues (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Daybreakers, maybe Texas Chainsaw 3D), but more often than not, the slot is awarded to scarefests that really stink up an already malodorous month. 2012’s The Devil Inside is perhaps the most quintessential example of January horror at its shoddiest and most ineffective. The message is clear: People are still primarily seeing December releases, everyone has the post-holiday blues and these movies cost virtually nothing to make, so why not toss them out into the barren winter void and hope for a couple of bucks to trickle in?
The Forest is this year’s deposit into the January dead zone, but someone neglected to tell its filmmakers that trying was entirely optional. While not a horror classic by any metric, the film is largely effective as a mid-range shocker. Watching The Forest, one braces to be bored, to be insulted, to be irritated by squandered time and effort, yet the film refuses to capitulate to any of those dire expectations. It remains stubbornly competent and sporadically gripping. It operates as though convinced it was going to be released on a weekend that mattered.
The film stars Natalie Dormer (suggesting sort of a clearance-bin Kirsten Dunst) as Sara Price, one half of a set of identical twins. When her devil-may-care sister Jess (also Dormer) vanishes into the Aokigahara Forest, located at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan, Sara becomes understandably concerned. The forest has a notorious reputation as a place where the distraught go to commit suicide, something Jess has already attempted in the past via sleeping pills. With her twin symbiosis alerting her to the fact that Jess is still, despite all odds and evidence, alive somewhere out there, Sara boards a plane to Japan and attempts to find her sister. Upon learning that the forest is too dangerous to traverse alone, Sara hooks up with Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a fellow American familiar with the area. Aiden enlists an experienced guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and the three of them embark on a search-and-rescue mission.
Sara has been informed, repeatedly, that the forest is home to many tormented spirits, and that she will witness terrible things that she needs to remember are only in her head. This does indeed come to pass, but she also quickly surmises that Aiden is not the upstanding gentleman that he initially presents himself to be. She learns from photos on his phone that he has met Jess before, something he had denied. This sets up a fascinating quandary for Sara: Which evil is more dangerous to her, the human or the otherworldly? At one point, a mysterious young girl appears and warns Sara not to trust Aiden, but later when Sara falls into an underground cavern and is menaced by a demonic incarnation of that same girl, it is Aiden who hoists her to safety. The Forest delights in toying with our loyalties and expectations. It puts forth the argument that, in such a terrifying place, the presence of any other human, no matter how dubious they seem, is preferable to being alone in the dark.
Before it falters with a finale awash in unspecified motivations, too-convenient developments and Blumhousian familiarity, The Forest functions well at a slow-burn pace. The film takes its time to establish Sara’s resolve, her complicated relationship with her twin, her immersion into the alien realm of Japanese culture and her descent into the forest. Apart from a couple of cheap ooga-booga jolts, the film is deliberately withholding on the forest’s insidiousness. Often it comes across as a more traditionalist spin on The Blair Witch Project, with people lost in the woods and experiencing psychological warfare waged by supernatural forces. It’s a nice touch that the entities within the forest have a hands-off policy with regard to their prospective victims. They aren’t out to rip Sara to shreds, but to tear down her sanity. At a couple of points, Sara flees past several eerie apparitions who are content to just stare idly at her.
Dormer does solid work as both sisters, and it’s a credit to the film that we don’t experience an abundance of forehead-slapping stupidity from her. Her personal stake in this is strongly conveyed enough to where we understand why she chooses to stay in this awful place, and the clear-headedness she often displays with regard to Aiden’s allegiances mark her as savvier than the standard horror heroine. It’s a shame that The Forest doesn’t land cleanly in its final stretch, but for a trudge through the dark wilderness of January horror, it’s admirable that it got as far as it did.
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