The forest’s oriental cultural influences, locations and mythology are somewhat squandered in this US jumps-scare rich horror staring Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame.
The plot of the film follows the disappearance of Sara’s (Dormer) twin in Japan’s famous Aokigahara Forest ‘suicide’ forest. Legend has it that the forest, nestled at the bottom of the iconic Mount Fuji, was once the site of much death and woe as the old, invalid and disabled were brought here to die in times of famine and other hardships. Fast forward to modern times, it has become a fashionable site for those looking to end it all to wander in and die. On top of this, local superstition states that due to the restless spiritual nature of the site the forest is inhabited by yōkai, ancient spirits who manipulate the psyche of those susceptible to committing acts of self-harm and suicide.
Ignoring all the above, Sarah, convinced her twin is alive and being the obstinate American wades into the forest accompanied by a reluctant local ranger and a fellow US journalist who is simply looking to get in her pants. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well.
For me this plot was a perfect opportunity to do two things, first, capitalise on the rich mythology readily available regarding yōkai and other fantasy creatures, and second, provide a creepy and sinister atmosphere within an environment which should have delivered it in spades.
The film does neither particularly well, although, despite my criticism still manages to be an enjoyable experience in terms of raw-entertainment value.
Whilst the build-up does well to set the scene, with some good exposition and pacey introduction to both plot and character, the film is undermined early on with some out of place and ineffective jump scares. For me the film showed its hand far too early, and revealed that this was a movie which had no intention of building up atmosphere and that I should just sit back, relax and enjoy the lush and authentic Japanese locations (actual forest filming took place in Serbia) whilst waiting for the next volume spike and well telegraphed jump scare to give me the all-to familiar jolt.
From a perspective of location, the film cannot be criticised. I have been to Japan, including the foothills of Mt Fuji, and whilst this film wasn’t filmed on location (due to Japanese law), it did a great job of making us think it was. Camera work within the forest did a great job of reflecting its vastness whilst still maintaining a claustrophobic choke-hold on its characters. There was a definite feeling of threat and sobering isolation – even without the CGI ghouls peering out from behind the trees. My only criticism here is that much of the film takes part in broad daylight and so what would become downright terrifying had it been filmed at night, becomes some-what lush and beautiful once your remember the nasties are merely computer generated.
The main feature of the film I would like to state impressed was the main threat – a fantastically creepy yōkai taking the guise of a school girl. Downright creepy, especially scene about two thirds of the way through the movie – I was shitting my pants. This was an example where the movies dynamics really worked and provided tense and high calibre horror. Indeed, the film sports several sequences which I found entertaining, which is why I wouldn’t class the film as a complete missed shot.
Overall, I would recommend this movie on the proviso that you know you are looking to watch a typical US mainstream horror (and that is not an elitist put down). It’s got a 15 rating, and it is clearly aimed at an immature audience. The jump-scare bandwagon has reached full momentum at the moment and this struggles to compete with some of its contemporise, but it still holds its own due to its authentic choice of location. As I said earlier, I enjoyed it, just wasn’t blown away. Use this movie as an opener, followed by the similar and superior movie ‘The Tag-Along’ and you are going to have a great movie night!