It is over fifteen years since the first wave of J-horror broke on the shores of America, Ringu, Dark Water, Ju-On, carrying with them in their wake The Eye from Hong-Kong. The response of Hollywood to this Asian invasion was two-fold: remakes which shifted the action to America with English speaking leads (The Ring with Naomi Watts, Dark Water with Jennifer Connolly and The Eye with Jennifer Alba) or remakes set in the original territory but starring a western lead (Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge).
The Forest is something different. The feature directorial debut of former music video director and marketer Jason Zada from a script by Nick Antosca (Teen Wolf), Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai (30 Days of Night: Dark Days), it is an original story set in the land of the rising sun but featuring two faces who will be a safe bet with domestic audiences, Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer and Chicago Fire‘s Taylor Kinney.
The normally immaculate and unflappable Dormer is excellent in the dual roles of Sara and Jess Price, the former tired and drawn after her unplanned trip to find her sister, missing from the school where she teaches and last seen heading to the Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji, a notorious suicide spot supposedly haunted by all who have died there.
Seen in flashback, Sara and Jess have markedly different personalities, Jess the more troubled and impulsive of the two, the one who when they were young saw the bodies of their parents after the accident while Sara stayed back, a sight which has cast a shadow over her life ever since.
Sara’s fiancé Rob (Merlin‘s Eoin Macken) disapproves of her intention to travel to Japan in search of Jess, but she is determined. “She’s my twin, she’s in trouble and she needs me.” “She always needs you,” he responds.
If Tokyo is another world beyond the automatic metal roller blind of Sara’s hotel room, a fantasy city of neon and electricity holding back the night, the forest is another world still. In a culture where the spirits of honoured ancestors are believed to walk among the living, these ghosts are different, those who were abandoned or died in shame and disgrace.
The ideas of isolation, displacement and loss of self are common in horror, and all are present here, Sara feeling she has lost a part of herself in her missing twin, but as the sun sets the tone of the film changes.
Having located Jess’ tent, local guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) insists they return to the path before dark and resume the search in the morning, but Sara defiantly says she will stay in case her sister returns during the night, and against better judgement Aiden (Kinney), the journalist she met in the hotel bar who accompanied her on the search, stays with her.
From this promising setup, Zada fails to develop any worthwhile substance, devolving through standard scenes of paranoia and mistrust. Having taken with his transplanted cast the most amateur of jump scares and obvious clichés, the spooky schoolgirl who hides beneath the trees issuing cryptic warnings no match for the terrified intensity of the of the girl who saw Sara and mistook her for Jess come back from the dead when she visited the school.
One pitfall which The Forest avoids is that Sara is only stubborn rather than suffering from the incomprehensible stupidity often required to move a stalled plot forward. Unfortunately Dormer alone, even doubled, is not enough to make up for the lack of atmosphere or that the film, ironically largely filmed in Serbia, has no flavour of the place it represents, never feeling honest or authentic.
The Forest is on general release from Friday 26th February