Japan’s Aokigahara forest has long been a notoriously frequent suicide spot for troubled locals, but over the past year it’s also become a fashionable destination for American filmmakers looking to milk hallucinatory thrills and anguished tears from this beautifully foreboding stretch of woodland. Arriving in theaters several months after Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees” bombed at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Forest” can’t help but benefit from the comparison: It may be a cut-rate showcase for good-looking imperiled Westerners and J-horror scares (where the “J” might just as well stand for “January”), but the whitewashing here at least feels more honest, and first-time director Jason Zada does generate an intermittently spooky sense of mystery that not even the muddled scripting can fully demolish.
The first 2016 offering from Focus Features’ Gramercy Pictures division (revived last year to distribute the likes of “Insidious: Chapter 3,” “Self/less” and “Sinister 2”), “The Forest” could get a small commercial boost from fans of Natalie Dormer, who’s known for her roles on “Game of Thrones” and “The Tudors,” as well as her turn as the kickass rebel Cressida in “The Hunger Games” franchise. Worthier, meatier big-screen vehicles surely await this gifted British actress, here playing American twin sisters of easily distinguishable temperament: While Sara is a responsible blonde, Jess’ goth-dark hair is meant to signify her edgier, more wayward nature. Still, Sara is alarmed to learn that Jess seems to have gone off the grid while studying in Japan, and was last seen entering the Aokigahara during a class field trip.
Her “twin sense” registering much more strongly than her common sense, Sara is convinced Jess is still alive and, leaving behind her concerned husband (Eoin Macken), she hops on the next flight to Tokyo. After sampling some grave-looking sushi and apparently running a Google Image search for “forest jump scare,” Sara makes her way to the Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest, owing to the many people who journey there every year to end their lives, usually by hanging or drug overdose. Sara has no intention of dying as she enters the forest and begins searching for her twin with the help of a local guide, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), and a hunky American expat, Aiden (Taylor Kinney). Aiden’s own dubious intentions — romantic? predatory? — become increasingly shrouded in mystery as he and Sara, and the story itself, begin to lose their way.
Covering a 14-square-mile stretch near the base of Mount Fuji, the Aokigahara is at once a mass tragedy site and a rich repository of myth that has fed various strains of Japanese cinema, literature and music over the years. Screenwriters Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca have made a half-hearted attempt to honor that cultural inheritance, specifically the notion that the forest is haunted by yurei, the tormented ghosts of those who died there. Still, these manifestations are awfully derivative: When Sara isn’t falling down holes, slicing her hand open, or shivering at night while shadows loom outside her tent, she catches the odd glimpse of these twisted specters, the creepiest of which suggests Linda Blair putrefying in a Nipponese schoolgirl uniform.
“The Forest” has already come under fire for allegedly exploiting, and exoticizing, a place whose legacy of shame and death calls for the utmost sensitivity. None of Zada’s filmmaking decisions really refute that charge, whether he’s shooting in Serbia’s Tara National Park (because filming in the Aokigahara is prohibited), or turning this sacred space into a sort of tourist-therapy setting for white interlopers, while relegating all the Japanese characters to the role of either benign sidekick or spooky distraction. At times the movie can’t help but bring to mind “The Unborn,” an even more dubious horror exercise that hung its demonic backstory on the Holocaust (and was directed by David S. Goyer, who is credited as a producer here). Still, given the ongoing cross-pollination between American and Japanese breeds of horror — a genre whose very purpose is to exacerbate our fears of the unknown — it would be churlish to attack Zada’s movie for not being a masterwork of cultural sensitivity.
Really, the most offensive thing about “The Forest” is that it simply isn’t better. Dormer is sympathetic enough in her double scream-queen roles, and Zada shows an occasional aptitude for generating suspense through framing, music and sound design, even if the beats he hits are often tediously familiar. And there is something nifty about the movie’s underlying notion that the Aokigahara can induce in its visitors a kind of psychotic madness, one partly rooted in the very real pain of their unresolved traumas. Sara and Jess, it turns out, have one messed-up family history, which seems fairly apparent from the minute we see an old photo of the girls posing like the Grady sisters. Yet that history is unraveled in more clumsy than crafty fashion, and the story ends with a shrug-inducing whimper; if ever a movie could have used Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods” as a closing-credits pick-me-up, it’s this one.