Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Forest: Jump-scares? Yes. Horror? Eh.

The Forest

Director: Jason Zada
Stars: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa

While most of the movies I’ve written about here have been superhero movies because I’m a Marvel drone, I do occasionally watch non-superhero movies, such as The Forest that came out this year. I really like watching horror movies, but they’re always better to watch with someone else, just so you can experience the jump-scares with somebody in the room. With this one, I couldn’t wait to have somebody in the room with me, so I watched it by myself, and that was okay. Other than quite a few jump-scares and some tense moments, I wasn’t all that spooked. I rented this through Amazon tonight, and I ended the movie thinking, “I’ve wasted more money on worse stuff.” (I’m looking at you, Halo: Guardians.)

Identical twins are said to have a deep connection to one another, and that theme plays quite heavily in The Forest between twin sisters Sarah and Jess (both played by Dormer). Sarah receives a call from the school Jess teaches at in Japan, and she also feels her “Wonder Twin” powers activate to tell her that Jess is in trouble. Sarah flies all the way to Japan to find out that her sister has entered Japan’s infamous Aokigahara suicide forest. One of Jess’s colleagues explains that historically, in times of famine, the elderly or disabled were taken to the forest and left for dead, but in modern times, people go into the forest to kill themselves. Sarah, desperate to find her sister, enters the forest with Michi (Ozawa), a Japanese park ranger, and Aiden (Kinney), a journalist. Stepping over the “No entry” sign leading into the dense woods, Michi sternly tells Sarah and Aiden that if they see something strange in the forest, it’s all in their heads…but not this time.

One thing that bothered me about this movie was Natalie Dormer’s acting. Granted, I haven’t seen her in many starring roles: I remember her from The Hunger Games and a small cameo in Captain America: The First Avenger, so it’s difficult for me to gauge her as an actor. That being said, I didn’t find her all that convincing here. Some of her line deliveries were really clunky, and at times, she seems downright wooden when she’s supposed to be acting concerned about her sister’s disappearance. I did appreciate that she played both roles, Sarah and Jess, because she did alter her voice and behavior in accordance with each specific character; I could tell when she was acting like Jess, and I could tell when she was acting like Sarah. When one person plays two different roles in a movie, that differentiation doesn’t always shine through.

Where there was a glimmer of light—but only a glimmer—was in the cinematography. The suicide forest is supposed to mess with people’s minds, and there are quite a few moments where Sarah is starting to lose herself, and it’s at those moments that Zada uses a handheld camera to circle around her while she turns the opposite direction to show her disorientation, or he cuts to a close up of Dormer using a Dutch tilt to show that she’s becoming off balance. That glimmer fades into darkness for the rest of the movie, however, and a lot of the film remains utterly dark to the point where it’s actually hard to see what’s happening on screen. Again, I get it—it’s a horror movie, and horror movies are supposed to be dark and scary, but the darkness didn’t really help build tension for me. There were certain moments where a face was darkened to add to the suspense of a scene, but more often than not, the scene was dark for the sake of being dark. Judging by IMDb’s page about The Forest’s director, Jason Zada, it doesn’t seem like he’s got much experience under his belt, and this looks like his first feature-length movie as a director. That could potentially explain why most of the movie is so dark, but at the same time, he did do some cool stuff with the handheld camera.

Those camera angles definitely show that the forest isn’t quite right, but the horror aspect of this movie doesn’t come through very well. The whole crux of the movie is that Sarah and Aiden are lost in a haunted forest, and while there are creepy moments, such as Michi cutting a hanged man down from a tree, Zada often relies on jump-scares to remind the audience that they are, indeed, watching a horror movie. The tension between Sarah and Aiden builds quite a bit, but there are points when Sarah stops dead in her tracks to stare at moss growing on the side of a tree while all the sound around her becomes muffled. Tree bark doesn’t render me catatonic, generally, so I’m not sure why Zada decided that those shots would help build the tension around Sarah’s distress in the forest.

This movie seems to hint at how Western culture sees Eastern culture in the ways that Sarah and Aiden—both white people—interact with the Japanese locals. First arriving in Japan, Sarah goes to find something to eat, but she’s appalled when a restaurant serves her what looks like recently-killed-still-moving shrimp—she even asks the chef to bring her something that’s already dead. Later, she goes to a trail guide center to search for clues about Jess, and a woman outside the center tells her about YĆ«rei, which is the Japanese word for a ghost. Sarah scoffs at the woman’s claim that there are ghosts in the forest known for people committing suicide there. Later, Sarah and Aiden follow Michi into the forest, and when Michi gives his warning about strange sightings in the forest being in their heads, both characters immediately make fun of him behind his back, as though they’re saying, “Oh, you silly, superstitious Japanese people! We’re white! You can’t scare us with your suicide forest hocus pocus!” I couldn’t help but notice how obliquely Sarah and Aiden dismissed every warning they heard about this place. When the professional trail guide for the goddamn suicide forest tells you, “Hey, we should leave now, it’s getting dark,” you don’t reply, “No way, bruh, I’m staying here tonight in this abandoned tent.” I wouldn’t say that I believe in ghosts, per se, but if all the locals tell me that a place is haunted, I’m probably going to put at least a little stock into what they’re telling me. This is a common trope of horror movies, of course, so maybe you should take this idea with a grain of salt.

I was actually pretty excited to watch this movie, and my partner was, too. I texted her that I was watching it, and she replied, “I heard it wasn’t very good”—it turns out that she heard correctly. It’s not a stellar film, by any means, but it kept me kind of engaged throughout the roughly 90-minute runtime. It’s not the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, but I know I’ve seen better elsewhere. Find a friend or two to get through the jump-scares, because that’s mostly what this movie is.