Director Jason Zada's camera framing is chokingly tight in The Forest, opening up once for a drone mounted camera overhead view that tellingly follows Sara (Natalie Dormer), Aiden (Taylor Kinney), and Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) as they walk a path through Aokigahara Forest, at the foot of Mt. Fuji. The forest is a notorious place for hikers looking to commit suicide, and legend has it, is filled with Yurei (spiteful ghosts), who play deadly tricks on those who stay after dark. So you must not leave the main path and you don't stay in the forest after dark, or so goes the warning. But this is a horror movie and warnings are always ignored in horror movies. Sara meets Aiden, a reporter, who in turn knows a forest guide, Michi. Michi takes regular hikes through Aokigahara looking for suicides, and Aiden goes along for the walks, looking for a potential story.
The story Aiden finds in Sara is that her sister Jess is missing, last seen in this potentially scary forest. Being twin sisters, Sara knows Jess is still alive because she feels it. They share a preternatural ability of knowing when something is wrong with the other. It's not much help beyond that since it doesn't work like GPS, and after the few times Sara keeps insisting she knows her sister is alive because of it, you wish it had been left out of the story. It's not used well or needed. (This is when I noticed there are three credited writers, so maybe an undeveloped thread?)
Sara convinces Aiden to convince Michi to take both of them along on his jaunt through the forest. He's not happy with the idea, but agrees to help. He explains that those who are sad are most vulnerable to the dangerous spirits that lurk there. The question that unfolds and eventually is answered for us is who is actually the sad one: Jess, who's had a rocky life, or Sara, who has a happy marriage but seems to worry a lot about her sister? This becomes the underpinning for the story and provides a layer of involvement missing from the visuals. It's also an essential element within J-Horror: the character who doesn't know herself or himself and who is taken advantage of because of it.
We travel with Sara to Japan fairly quickly, slow down once we get there while she languishes lost in thought, then take the train ride and long walk to the forest with her, where we slow down again for a somewhat confusing (is she dreaming, is this real?) stock scare in the basement of the tourist cabin, and another half-hearted scare at the inn she's staying at. Then Zada jumps out of his routine by capturing the essence of Japan in a scene at twilight, involving schoolgirls crossing her path while she's, once again, lost in thought, snapping her out of her reverie to notice the inn she's standing in front of. An evocative scene that stands out among many less memorable ones.
Finally walking through the cheery forest (those chirping birds do sound cheery), Sara ignores all of Michi's warnings and insists on staying the night after she finds her sister's yellow tent. And this is after they find a somewhat gamy suicide hanging from a tree. Aiden agrees to stay with her. As night falls, the Yurei come out. The scares do not. Either I'm too jaded or Zada hasn't seen enough Japanese horror to realize breaking a tradition or two here would have made a smarter movie. We didn't need to travel to Aokigahara to see his spirits, we've seen them often enough elsewhere. After getting us and Sara into the forest, he doesn't make us lose our way in the creepy darkness with the visual or stylish flair promised by his birds-eye view or twilight scenes earlier. What he does do well is build the paranoia Sara feels as she questions what's real and what isn't, while opening her backstory to us.
It's infectious. Why did Aiden stay with her? Does he know what happened to Jess? What exactly happened to her parents? Is Sara being tricked and lied to by malevolent spirits dressed as Japanese schoolgirls? Zada reaches a good level of uncertainty but fails to really sell it without more visually unique horrors. What he shows are standard images, within standard events, and providing standard clues. The story unfolds as it should, and there's a nice twist ending--just who exactly is the lost one here?--but it all boils down to an often seen horror scenario presented without enough visual flair or tricky timing to make it more than simply good and not nearly good enough.