Tuesday, January 19, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Forest

Welcome to the January Film Dumping Ground! Yes, it's that magical time of year where the studios burn off all the celluloid dogs they didn't dare release during the all-important and lucrative summer and Xmas blockbusters seasons. Brace yourselves for an onslaught of watered-down PG-13 horror films (like this one), romcoms, dance-off movies and fart comedies. It's a great time to be a film fan.

The Forest was written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai (it took three people to write this?), and directed by Jason Zada. This is pretty much the entire group's first foray into theatrical movies.

Natalie Dormer, of Game Of Thrones and Hunger Games fame, plays a dual role here as Sara and her twin sister Jess. Dormer gives the film her all, but unfortunately there's barely enough material for one character, much less two. As usual for a horror film, the main character has a talent for ignoring dire warnings from the locals and making the stupidest decisions possible, making it tough for the audience to care what happens to her. 

The Japanese setting is a welcome departure from the usual haunted house, so you can at least distract yourself by looking at the scenery. There's a ton of ideas and subplots thrown at the screen, but none of it's ever given enough attention.

There are a few mildly creepy moments, but ultimately the biggest problem with The Forest is that it's just not scary. As you might imagine, this is a big problem for a horror film. The director seems to realize this, as he cranks the number of jump scares up to 11, but it doesn't help.

The majority of the film is spent inside Aokigahara Forest, which is a real place. Sometimes called the Sea Of Trees or the Suicide Forest, it's a fourteen square mile woods at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The forest contains a number of icy caverns, and the trees are very dense, making it easy to become lost inside (although if it's only fourteen square miles, it seems like you could just pick a direction and walk out in a few hours).

The actual forest and the legends surrounding it are far more interesting than the plot of the actual movie. For some reason Aokigahara has become a popular suicide site for the Japanese. Between fifty and two hundred people a year have killed themselves there, usually by hanging or drug overdose. In fact Japanese officials have stopped releasing the number of deaths to try and downplay the publicity.

Some blame the site's high suicide rate on a 1960 Japanese novel titled Kuroi Jukain (Black Sea Of Trees), but the suicides predate the book. The forest has long been associated with death and Japanese mythology, and is supposedly haunted by yurei (angry spirits).

The Forest has generated a bit of controversy, as some critics have denounced the film for appropriating a sad national tragedy for entertainment purposes. Normally I roll my eyes at such politically correct bushwah, but in this case I'm inclined to agree with the critics. Using mass suicide as a backdrop for a lame horror film does seem a bit insensitive and disrespectful to the victims, as well as their families.

This isn't the first film to use Aokigahara as a backdrop. Forest Of The Living Dead (2010), Grave Halloween (2013) and Sea Of Trees (2015) were all set in Aokigahara, and featured suicide as subject matter. Sea of Trees was the most prominent of these films, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matthew McConaughey of all people. It was supposedly booed off the screen at Cannes last year, so maybe we'll see a moratorium on Japanese suicide movies for a while.

SPOILERS, I GUESS!

The Plot:
Sara Price (played by Natalie Dormer) receives a call from the Japanese police, saying her troubled twin sister Jess was last seen entering Aokigahara Forest and is presumed dead. The Forest is a popular suicide spot, but Sara's spider-sense, er, I mean her psychic twin connection, tells her that Jess is still alive. Despite her fiance Rob's reservations, she hops on the next plane to Japan to search for her twin.

Sara visits the school where Jess taught and speaks with her students and fellow teachers. They warn her not to go into Aokigahara to look for Jess, because the forest is full of yurei, angry spirits who will prey on Sara's sadness and drive her mad.

She poo-poos their warnings and travels to Aokigahara anyway. At her hotel, she meets Aiden, an American reporter who works for an Australian travel magazine (?). As they bond over a drink, she tells him how her parents were killed by a drunk driver when she was six. 

Aiden knows a park guide named Michi, who regularly patrols Aokigahara Forest looking for bodies of suicide victims. He and Michi offer to take Sara into the woods to search for Jess. Once again Sara is warned, this time by Michi, that the forest is full of evil spirits who will try to deceive her, and not to trust anything she sees.

After hours of searching the forest they find a yellow tent, which Sara recognizes as Jess.' She says she knows Jess is still alive and probably lost in the dense woods. Michi says night is fast approaching and they have to go. He suggests leaving a note for Jess, but Sara refuses to leave. This is of course an incredibly stupid idea, but without it there's no movie, so we have to roll with it. Aiden volunteers to stay with Sara, and Michi wisely hauls ass out of the haunted woods.

That night Sara hears noises in the woods, and thinking it's Jess, runs away from the camp. She finds a Japanese girl named Hochiko, who says she knows Jess. She also warns Sara not to trust Aiden and then disappears. Sara chases after her, but falls and severely cuts her hand. The next morning Aiden talks Sara into leaving the woods to get medical attention. Naturally they soon become lost in the thick forest. Michi returns to the tent and finds it empty.

As they trudge through the forest, Sara becomes suspicious of Aiden and grabs his phone. She finds photos of Jess on it, but Aiden denies knowing her. She runs off and falls into a cave. Hochiko appears again, and Sara realizes she's a yurei. Aiden somehow finds Sara and pulls her out of the cave. He takes her to a ranger station he found while searching for her.

Meanwhile, Michi has organized a search party to look for Sara and Aiden. Inside the station, Aiden finds a radio and tries to get it to work. While he's distracted, Sara searches the cabin. She finds a locked door, and hears Jess on the other side. Jess slides a note under the door saying Aiden is holding her captive. Sara finds a knife and attacks Aiden, stabbing him in the chest. As he dies, she realizes he was telling the truth, and everything— the photos of Jess on his phone, and the notes— were all illusions cooked up by the yurei.

Sara hears voices coming from the basement and investigates. She sees her parents lying dead on the floor, the victim of a murder/suicide, and not, as she was told, of a car accident. Apparently her father killed her mother and then himself. Suddenly the body of her father reaches out and grabs her. She cuts his fingers away from her arm and runs out of the basement.

Cut to Jess, who is indeed still alive and well in the forest. She hears Michi's search party and runs toward it. Sara sees Jess run through the forest and calls to her, but she doesn't hear. Sara looks down at her wrist and see's it's been slashed, and realizes she did it to herself when trying to escape the hallucination of her dead father. She's then surrounded by a group of yurei, as hands burst from the forest floor and pull her under.

Jess is rescued by the search party, which now includes Rob. When he asks if she's seen Sara, she says it's too late— she can no longer feel her with her magic twin sense. As the search party leaves, Michi stands at the entrance of the forest and sees a ghostly figure. The figure is of course Sara's ghost, and we get a patented "Ghost Attacks The Camera In The Final Second™" scene.

Thoughts:
• I don't have a lot to say about this movie, so this'll be pretty short.

• At the beginning of the film, Sara tells her fiance Rob that she knows her twin Jess is still alive, and wants to go to Japan to find her. Rob puts up a very weak and token objection before saying, "Whatever."

What kind of a man would let his fiance travel all the way to Japan by herself? Especially when she doesn't even speak the language! Rob eventually follows Sara to Tokyo, but by the time he does it's too little, too late. If he'd gone with her in the first place, he probably could have kept her from being killed.

• Natalie Dormer does a very authentic American accent. It wasn't until halfway through the movie that I remembered she's British.

• Of course Natalie Dormer plays both Sara and her identical twin Jess. In true Hollywood fashion, the moody, edgier Jess has black hair, just like Samantha's cousin Serena on Bewitched, and Jeannie's sister on I Dream Of Jeannie. Because in Hollywood dark hair = bad girl, dontcha know.

• My favorite "Whoops!" moment in the entire film: while in Japan, Sara shows various people a photo of Jess, asking if they've seen her. Um… she and Jess are identical twins. Why not just point at her own face and ask if they've seen anyone who looks like her? D'oh!

• In the bar, Sara tells Aiden how her parents died when she was a child. She says when their dead bodies were found, she closed her eyes tight and wouldn't look, while Jess stared wide-eyed at them. Apparently this incredibly simplistic bit of pop psychology is the movie's explanation as to why Jess is the more troubled of the two.

• Once inside Aokigahara, Sara sees dozens of ropes and lines of plastic tape leading into the dense forest. Supposedly this really does happen, as people use the ropes so they can leave the trail and return without getting lost. The first mile or so of Aokigahara is thick with these "lifelines."

• While searching for Jess in the forest, Michi, the guide, spots a man in a tent. He tells Sara that's a good sign, because when people bring a tent it means they're not sure about committing suicide.

Michi walks over to the man and has a few words with him. He returns a few minutes later and says, "He'll be OK." Will he, movie? Will he really? Or are you just in a hurry to sweep a troubled individual under the rug and get back to your little ghost story?

It's probably a bad sign that I felt more concerned about the fate of this nameless and faceless background character than I did Sara or Jess.

• Parts of the movie were filmed in Japan, but all the scenes inside the forest were filmed in Serbia, as filming isn't allowed inside Aokigahara Forest.

• The movie ends as Michi stares into the entrance of the forest at the ghostly figure of Sara. The camera slowly pans toward her, and at the last second she leaps forward, filling the screen.

It's apparently federal law that all horror films have to end this way. I've seen this exact same jump scare non-ending at least fifty times in the past couple of years. It wasn't the least bit scary the first time, and it ain't gettin' any scarier.

The Forest is yet another limp PG-13 horror film that's long on atmosphere and short on actual scares. It also takes a real place known for its tragically high suicide rate and parades it across the screen for our entertainment. I give it a C.

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