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Monday, April 4, 2016

THE FOREST -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

Try getting lost in a forest, and you'll understand what a scary place it can be.  Naturally, it's been the setting for horror films that either pretty much get it right (THE WOODS) or woefully get it wrong (THE EVIL WOODS).

Director Jason Zada's THE FOREST (2016) pretty much gets it right.  In fact, for a movie about a forest in which a forest is the star--namely, the lush, legendary Aokigahara Forest in Japan, in which people are said to lose themselves in order to commit suicide--this one is about as spooky and evocative as such a film can get.

From the moment we see Sara Price (Natalie Dormer, W.E., THE HUNGER GAMES, "Game of Thrones") getting her first psychic premonition that her identical twin sister Jess is in danger in said forest, and immediately flying to Tokyo where the missing sister teaches English, we're already beginning a gradual descent into this film's somber and oppressively ominous mood. 

Not only is an overall ambience of creepiness established early, but Sara hasn't even left her hotel and entered the forest before we're subjected to the first in a series of jump scares that flash-freeze the blood. 

Some of these, as in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), involve frizzy-haired old ladies.  Who, coincidentally, have often been left to die in the forest in years past by families who didn't know what else to do with them. 

Even when THE FOREST isn't goosing us, it's creeping us out in other ways.  Not the least of these is when Sara enters a visitors' center and is left in a room full of dead bodies that have been retrieved from the forest.  When one of them appears to move, is it really happening, or is Sara's mind already playing tricks on her?  This question will be a major concern throughout the story.

Sara meets a handsome Australian journalist named Aiden (Taylor Kinney, ZERO DARK THIRTY) who's about to trek into the woods with an experienced guide, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), and invites her along if he can include her in the article he's writing.  We share her relief in finding a kindred spirit such as he, but also her misgivings about his motives. (Was that a glint of recognition in his eyes when he first saw her?)

Thus begins the heart of the film's gripping story, replete with the dead bodies of those who have committed suicide, angry and terrifying ghosts who may or may not be real, teasing clues concerning Jess' whereabouts, and Sara's continuing doubts about both Aiden's trustworthiness and her own sanity.  Doubts which we, the viewers, must apprehensively share as things get scarier and scarier and we see it all through her eyes.

THE FOREST establishes an extremely effective fact-based mythology about the "suicide forest" that makes us fear any deviation from the beaten path (from which the main characters must, of course, deviate) and dread the prospect of being left out there all alone in the dark of night. 

It also has a way of deriving supernatural-type scares from even the more realistic situations in which Sara's overactive imagination gets the better of her.  This eventually brings us to a point where potential madness and delusion are far more frightening than ghosts. 

The beautifully-photographed forest locations are richly foreboding, while the Japanese setting with its history of ghost stories and legends adds to the exotic nature of the story. 

The filmmakers really run with this premise--ghosts, dead people, horrifying visions that may or may not be there--and just keep thinking of ways to creep us out with it.  Even when the film is unable to fully maintain its level of sustained fear, it stays interesting enough to keep our attention the whole time. 

Dormer finds just the right note to play Sara, somewhere between anxiety and resignation, while searching for her trouble-prone twin.  Kinney remains jovial but enigmatic as Aiden, and like Sara we're never quite sure of him.  The rest of the cast are good including Eoin Macken ("Merlin") as Sara's concerned husband Rob.

The Blu-ray+Digital HD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment is in 1080p high resolution widescreen with English DTS-HD master audio 5.1.  Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.  Extras include the featurette "Exploring 'The Forest'", galleries, storyboards, and an intimate commentary track by director Jason Zada.

With moments that'll have you jumping in your seat and an overall feeling of creeping fear, THE FOREST overcomes even its occasional lapses and a not-quite-satisfying ending (for me, anyway) to succeed as a memorably effective and exceedingly well-made modern horror story. 


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