A person or persons come up with a basic idea for a horror thriller and expand an outline to a full-blown screenplay that is made into a movie. And it comes so close to realizing its potential. However …
This is what drags down “The Forest,” a promising movie that, just as it seems to be building up in intensity and complexity, suddenly cuts short, as if it were under a deadline and was forced to be concluded before the all the details could be wrapped up.
“The Forest” has some strong points, starting with its star, Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones,” “The Tudors” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” films), along with a decent story line and a setting that can be overwhelming and creepy. That it falls short likely can be attributed to inexperience. The three screenwriters, Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai, had never written a full-length movie script. Antosca and Ketai mostly have some television credits, and for Cornwell, this was her first screenplay ever.
Director Jason Zada was directing his first feature-length movie here.
Dormer plays Sara Price, a woman with what appears to be a stable life and marriage, who learns that her twin sister, Jess, a teacher in Japan, has disappeared, last seen entering the Aokigahara Forest below the majestic Mt. Fuji.
The forest already has a grim history, the place being where, during wars and famine, the sick and elderly were taken and left abandoned to die. Now in modern times, the Aokigahara Forest is a destination for those who want to commit suicide.
While the Japan authorities assume Jess is dead, Sara, who like many twins shares a spiritual link with her sister, is convinced Jess is alive, just lost in the forest.
Sara flies to Japan, intent on going into the forest herself and finding Jess.
As she settles into lodgings near the forest, she meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a travel writer for an Australian magazine who has made arrangements to go into the forest, accompanied by a ranger, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). Sara talks Aiden into letting her join in on the trek, under an agreement that Aiden can write a story about Sara and her quest to locate her sister.
Unfortunately, the movie is nearly half over before the three people actually enter the forest. Granted there needs to be some set-up dialogue, as Michi, not really enthused about leading Sara into the forest, issues warnings about the bad vibes in this vast wilderness, claiming that any horrible things they might encounter — other than possible bodies of suicide victims — will only be in their imagination, that the forest can sense when a person entering the forest is sad and exploit this.
Otherwise, a lot of footage is wasted, showing Sara traipsing along, pulling her luggage, or riding a train, along with a totally unnecessary scare scene that takes place before she goes into the forest.
There are some flashback scenes that help reveal the relationship between Sara and Jess and offer an explanation as to why Sara is grounded and Jess is the more unstable one.
Once the title character, the forest, is on screen, the movie finally triggers uneasiness. After all, a wilderness of this vast size can be intimidating, just with the idea one could get lost and never be found. Add to that the fact that so many people died there, willingly or not, and you have an environment that is eerie and unsettling.
Just as Michi insists they have to turn around and go back, and return to continue the search the next day because you don’t want to be in the forest after dark, they come across Jess’ tent and her belongings. Sara stubbornly decides to stay there despite the approaching darkness and wait for Jess to come back to her camp. Aiden also decides to stay. Michi reluctantly leaves but insists that they stay put in the camp area until he returns the next day.
When darkness hits, the creepiness escalates and this is where “The Forest” is at its best. Particularly effective is the appearance of a young Japanese schoolgirl, Mei (Ibuki Kineda), who may have been a student of Jess and claims to know where Jess is — but she also just might be a figment of Sara’s imagination.
Now, if “The Forest” had been better paced and not wasted so much earlier footage, there might have been another 20-30 minutes to explore what Sara and Aiden encounter, along with more clues as to whether the forest had succeeded in messing with Sara’s mind, blurring the distinction between reality and hallucination.
Instead, there is a climax that looks rushed, leaving a lot of issues unresolved. We do learn the reason Jess might be more unstable than Sara. But other issues are just left standing. This might have been the intent of the movie makers, but some of it is so blatantly set aside it almost seems like massive holes in the story either were never written or filmed but chopped out.
The overall effect is that the viewer may feel cheated, as if the filmmakers were saying: this is a long tease — to get the rest you have buy the director’s cut version on DVD/Blu-Ray. The ending was handled in a way that does lead to discussion, but there just was too much that got glossed over.