Modern horror movies tend to demand that their audiences are willing to make huge leaps of faith regarding the behaviour and motivations of their lead characters. Take The Forest, for example; Natalie Dormer’s Sara Price receives a phone call from the Japanese Police, informing her that her troubled teacher sister Jess is missing, presumed dead, having been seen entering the Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji. The forest – in reality, as well as within the film’s fiction – is notorious as a final destination for the suicidal and is also reputedly haunted by the angry spirits (yurei) of those left to die. Sara, dutiful sister, jets 6,000 miles on what might seem to be an unlikely, fruitless, needle-in-a-haystack search to find her missing sister in the 14 square mile wilderness of the forest. At first though, accompanied by a friendly guide and an intrigued journalist she chats up in a bar, it looks as though Sara’s quest has drawn fruit with ease, as in the middle of the forest she stumbles upon a tent she recognises as belonging to her sister...but Jess is nowhere in sight.
The Forest wears its influences unashamedly on its sleeve (or perhaps on its backpack). There’s a bit of Blair Witch here, a touch of the Japanese ghost story and psychological horror yarn there; but it’s a pleasantly exhilarating brew that rewards in ways we might not expect from a film that, superficially, appears pretty generic and formulaic. What really makes The Forest work – apart from a persuasive performance from Dormer as the steely Sara – is its location. Filming in Tokyo initially gives the movie the uncomfortable air of a travelogue but when the action switches to the forest (a substitute location in Serbia as filming isn’t allowed in the real Aokigahara), the film switches gear and becomes edgy, claustrophobic and occasionally unsettling. Zada revels in the opportunities afforded by the dense, stifling environment to really ratchet up the disorientating sense of unease, and Sara’s determination to find her sister becomes almost obsessive as she plunges further into the forest. We’re never sure if what she’s seeing and experiencing is genuine or just a hallucination conjured up by her eerie surroundings. But as friends appear to become enemies and Sara begins to lose control of her sense of what’s right and what’s real, it seems that ghosts and memories from her own past are in danger of overwhelming her, just as it seems as if her search is coming to an end...
The Forest doesn’t reinvent the horror movie but there are some decent creepy moments here and there and the obligatory something’s-appeared-out-of-nowhere jump scares, which suggests that although the movie’s hardly destined to figure on anyone’s ‘top ten horror movies’ list, it’s guaranteed to provide a few thrills and spills for the ninety-odd minutes you spend in its company in the multiplex.
THE FOREST / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JASON ZADA / SCREENPLAY: NICK ANTOSCA, SARAH CORNWELL, BEN KETAI / STARRING: NATALIE DORMER, TAYLOR KINNEY, EOIN MACKEN, YUKIYOSHI OZAWA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW