The Forest (2016)

Rating: **
Review Date: 1/10/16
Music: Bear McCreary
Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney

Twin sisters get separated and lost in a haunted Japanese forest, which is the same setting as "Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly," one of the best video games of all time. Unfortunately, the similarities end there (although a Viewmaster could pass for the Camera Obscura). Jess Price (Natalie Dormer) is an American woman living in Japan, who decides to visit the infamous Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji. The forest has a history of suicides and a reputation for being haunted by angry spirits. When Jess's twin sister Sara (also Natalie Dormer) gets a call that Jess has gone missing, she decides to go look for her. With the help of a park ranger named Michi and a hunky journalist named Aiden (Taylor Kinney), Sara manages to find Jess's abandoned camp site, and that's when things start getting freaky. Is Jess alive? Can Aiden be trusted? Are the sights and sounds of the forest real, or just a byproduct of Sara's guilt, paranoia, and fear?

Like many psychological thrillers, "The Forest" keeps you off balance through unreliable narration, but the charade never ends and the unsatisfying conclusion leaves all of the important questions unanswered. It can't decide whether it's a ghost story, a serial killer story, or a psychological study of repression and depression, and it never fully embraces any particular theme. Careful observation ties all of Sara's delusions together, but the story never comes clean and all we're left with in the end is a pointless "girl goes crazy in a creepy forest" tale. Thankfully, the cinematography is pretty, the music is creepy, and despite having little to work with, Natalie Dormer manages to hold the whole thing together with a strong and appealing performance. She has a delightful everygirl charm to her and runs through a believable gamut of behavior and emotions. Unfortunately, a glaring continuity flaw in the first five minutes of the film spoils the mood and puts your brain on alert for the remainder of the show. Interestingly, the film was shot in Serbia, as it's forbidden to film in the actual Aokigahara Forest. This makes the choice of Japan as a location rather curious, since any haunted forest would suffice. Unlike the J-Horror genre that the film attempts to emulate, it relies heavily on jump scares and every single one of them is shown in the trailer. However, it's the subtle imagery and quiet moments that make a much greater impact. If you go in with low expectations, you might find it mildly entertaining.