“The Forest” is a fairly promising feature debut from director Jason Zada, which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s a good horror film. It does, however, contain one clever series of images, akin to (but not nearly as frightening as) the woman crawling out of the well and through the TV screen in “The Ring.” The scene in question comes late in the picture, so we’ll just say it involves a key character re-living a childhood trauma with the supernatural help of an old-timey GAF View-Master.
Frustratingly, the movie shortchanges this and other scare sequences, either by harried technique or imprecise pacing. But Natalie Dormer from “Game of Thrones” and “The Hunger Games” is the star of “The Forest,” in what studio publicists used to call “a demanding dual role!” So that helps.
Identical twin Jess (Dormer), of reckless and self-destructive disposition, has disappeared in the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji. Presumed a suicide, like so many others who travel to the so-called “sea of trees” with no intention of leaving alive, Jess goes missing for several days. Her twin, Sara (Dormer again), travels to the forest and ventures deep inside, where the malevolent spirits roam, with the help of a hunky travel writer (Taylor Kinney of “Chicago Fire”) and their cautious trail guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa).
Working from a script by Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca, director Zada establishes a mood of sullen grief and methodical dread. There’s not a lot of filmmaking energy in “The Forest,” and roughly 40 minutes of story surrounded by 45 more minutes of Dormer in nonverbal distress.
“Stay on the path,” everyone keeps telling Sara, though of course she does not, and the spirits (who feed on a person’s fears, like certain bosses I’ve known) take note and do their thing, dashing suddenly into the camera, or causing hallucinations involving bugs crawling under Sara’s skin. The movie stays dutifully on its chosen path. For the record, Gus Van Sant recently made “The Sea of Trees,” set in the same infamous suicide forest, starring Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. In its contrived sentimentality that film is twice as frightening as this one.