Japanese folklore tells of a practice called ubasute—literally “abandoning an old woman”—in which villagers would carry their elderly and burdensome relatives to the peak of a mountain or some other similarly desolate place and leave them there to die. The custom is supposedly apocryphal, or at least never performed with enough regularity to be accepted as fact, but anyone who’s seen a version of The Ballad of Narayama is plenty familiar with it (and anyone who’s seen Tokyo Story will understand that a quick death from exposure might be preferable to several long decades of drifting away).
In the film business, ubasute is an all-too-real phenomenon, and it happens in full view of the public. Every year, during the first proper weekend of January, the studios’ niche labels trot out the horror movies they know have nothing to contribute to society and leave them for dead in your local multiplex, hoping that the release might make life simpler by turning a tidy profit and easing the company balance sheets. Last year it was The Woman in Black: Angel of Death; the year before that it was Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. In 2012 the process reached its peak with the release of The Devil Inside, which featured a URL in lieu of a third act.
All of this is to say that anybody with access to a calendar already knows that The Forest is bad; at this point, that’s less of a presumption than it is a tradition. The only question worth asking about an early January horror movie is if its inevitable badness is at all interesting.
Just to be clear, The Forest couldn’t possibly care less about you, and the indiscriminate apathy with which it was made sheds off the screen like a contagion. The indifference is clear right from the start, as first-time feature director Jason Zada opens with a blitz of shots that squeeze 30 minutes of exposition into roughly 11 seconds. Sara (Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer, shot here to look like a chiaroscuro Saoirse Ronan) receives a heavily accented phone call informing her that her sister, Jess—an English teacher working in rural Japan—has disappeared into the country’s infamous Aokigahara Forest, a real place known for being one of the world’s three most popular places to commit suicide (as well as a major ubasute hot spot!). The authorities assume that Jess is but the latest person to drown in the Sea of Trees, but Sara refuses to believe it. Faster than you can say, “This exact shot of someone riding in a taxi cab through downtown Shinjuku sure was a lot more interesting in Lost in Translation,” Emily has flown 6,000 miles on a quest to find her sayonara’d sibling.
The two scenes that were actually shot in Japan both look lovely, but it isn’t long before Sara has followed the trail to the verdant base of Mt. Fuji, and the role of Aokigahara is abruptly recast with its much cheaper nonunion counterpart, rural Serbia. There, at a rustic inn whose lights seem powered by the screams emitted by jump-scared guests, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a photojournalist who arranges for a tour guide to take his clueless fellow American into the forest. The next morning, amid whispers of angry spirits that feed off the sadness of their victims, the three of them wander into the woods. Many loud noises ensue.
It’s remarkable how little actually transpires from that point forward. (Abandon all hope, ye who are hoping for an inexplicable twist ending that might at least make it fun to tell your friends about that stupid new movie you saw.) Yet, for one moment, the film hints at a sharper intelligence, and of course it’s when the film stops throwing things in your face and delivers a subtle scene of deception. As Sara tells Aiden about the incident that orphaned her and her sister when they were only just girls, the yarn she’s spinning about a drunk driving accident doesn’t match the barbaric imagery we see on screen, a murder-suicide in the basement of her family’s house. In his film’s one genuinely cinematic moment, Zada doesn’t linger on the discrepancy, inviting the audience to fill in the blanks for themselves and wrestle with how Sara’s apparent history of denial might be affecting her ability to make rational decisions about her sister, particularly after we learn that Jess has attempted suicide twice before. “She looks at the dark stuff,” Sara says of Jess, “and I turn away.” In a film that takes pains to point out the subjectivity of its camera, and how all of the supposed horrors that jump out at us are in Sara’s head—her own sadness weaponized against her—it’s the only instance of the director using the dark stuff as effectively as his evil spirits do.
There’s just enough meat here to make you think about how much better The Forest might be if it weren’t forced to shriek in your face every five minutes; if it didn’t feel like trying to watch a mediocre episode of The Twilight Zone while suffering through occasional jolts of severe back pain. Some movies use jump-scares to effectively build tension and mess with your head (The Babadook), but The Forest has no interest in getting under your skin; it just wants to poke you repeatedly until it’s been up on the screen for long enough to die of exposure. The ingredients of the movie’s jump-scares could be anything, and half the time you can’t even tell. A ghoul (or yurei) dressed as a Japanese schoolgirl? Sure. It doesn’t really make any difference.
Eventually, you’re left with nothing to think about beyond the banality of what’s on screen and whether it might be crass to lazily exploit a place where so many people have killed themselves that officials have stopped publishing the official numbers, lest they make the prospect seem more seductive to the vulnerable. And you’re left to think about the profit that such a cheap movie could wring out of its opening weekend and why anyone should bother to love their difficult relations when it’s so rewarding to feed them to the wolves.