If you’re over holiday films and ready for your next scary movie fix, you’re in luck. Gramercy Pictures’ The Forest hits theaters today, bringing the terrifying ‘suicide forest’ of Japan to life. Though I’m not really the horror movie type, my love for Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games) and the film’s technical classification as a “supernatural thriller” convinced me to pull it together and attend a screening earlier this week. Though I may have lost a few months off my life from my heart beating so fast, I found The Forest to be a fascinating (and, yes, very frightening) story that draws you in just as effectively as the Aokigahara Forest itself.
In The Forest, a young American woman named Sara (Natalie Dormer) travels to Japan in search of her twin sister (also Natalie Dormer, making this a world I want to live in), who has mysteriously disappeared. Sara learns that Jess was last seen wandering off the path in the real-life Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji – a place legendary for its history of violence and reputation for paranormal activity.
Though Jess’ odds of survival aren’t good – the forest has become known as a place where people go with the intention of committing suicide – Sara is determined to search for her twin. Securing the help of expatriate journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and park ranger Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), she journeys into the forest herself – having been well warned to “stay on the path.”
Sara isn’t sure how much to believe, but Michi warns her that the forest makes people see bad things – and sometimes do bad things. She and Aiden end up spending the night in Aokigahara – though Michi begs them not to – and, well, sh*t hits the fan from there. Sara must face the malevolent, tormented souls (yurei) that haunt the forest and prey on anyone who comes near them, fighting to survive and to save her sister.
The Forest is really a psychological slow burn – meaning that there’s plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful, chilling imagery of Aokigahara Forest before the place starts trying to kill everyone. Though most of the film was actually shot in Serbia’s Tara National Park (filming is no longer permitted in the Aokigahara itself), the title forest is very much a real place, lending terrifying authenticity to the story – and making this writer very grateful that there are no forests in LA. It is undeniably beautiful, though. Macro shots of bubbling springs, lush plants, and crawling insects make the seemingly endless forest feel simultaneously claustrophobic (and extra creepy).
Of course, all that beauty is hiding some really scary stuff – but the psychological nature of the film will have you asking, “Real or not real?” The bodies that Sara, Aiden, and Michi find during their daytime trek are real enough, but after that, Sara begins to question everything. Whether she can really trust Aiden, who is charismatic but also very much an unknown. Whether what she’s seeing (e.g. many more bodies, a malevolent spirit) is real. What really happened to her deceased parents when she and Jess were kids. The Forest seems to drop hints about these mysteries, but doesn’t give any clear-cut answers – meaning that the film lingers with you as your mind tries to puzzle out what really happened and what was just in Sara’s head.
The Forest definitely succeeds on the scary front, presenting an array of increasingly terrifying spirits – not to mention the frightening prospect that it might just be happening in Sara’s mind (but with bloody, real-world consequences). The core trio is solid, with Natalie Dormer especially shining (though is that any surprise?) as she is broken down by what she sees in the forest. Though it’s an original concept and setting, the film is not entirely free of horror movie conventions… but it does have its moments of hilarious self-awareness. (Two words: ranger station.) The ending (no spoilers!) had me unable to look away and determined to never set foot in a forest again.
If you’re in the mood to be scared – or, like me, can tough it out for Natalie Dormer – we certainly recommend The Forest. The scenery alone is worth seeing on the big screen, and the central three performances and engaging story will have you unable to leave your seat… Or maybe that’s just the yurei.
Watch The Forest for:
- Natalie Dormer
- Natalie Dormer (listed twice, because identical twins)
- Beautiful, sweeping views of an endless forest
- Scenic underground caves
- Cute guys with questionable motives
- Natural ambiance (i.e. lots of bodies)
- Lots of excuses to hold your date’s hand
- Did we mention DOUBLE NATALIE DORMER?
Oh, and the next time you need a vacation destination, why not check out the Aokigahara Forest? We hear the hiking is to die for.