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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Forest (Blu-ray)
The Forest (Blu-ray)
Universal // PG-13 // April 12, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Film:

It almost seems as if many upcoming actresses these days must undergo a rite of passage along their way to true distinction: headlining a subpar horror or thriller that generates few scares and, shortly thereafter, fades into obscurity. Emily Blunt got entangled with lycanthropes in The Wolfman; Jennifer Lawrence intrudes upon the demons of a family's past in House at the End of the Street; Anne Hathaway searched for disappearing survivors of an airplane in Passengers. Now, the talented and charismatic Natalie Dormer has tucked some dodgy suspense under her belt with The Forest, a mixture of supernatural enigmas and psychological confusion with the melancholy subject matter involving Japan's historically significant "suicide forest". Even with the dense, misty woods of the location's atmosphere and a dedicated leading lady determinedly stumbling through it, this drama-horror hybrid overextends its subdued tension for the sake of a heroine whose lack of depth obscures the film's bleak mind-games.

An American woman, Sara (Natalie Dormer), receives a phone call from the authorities notifying her that her twin sister, Jess, has been presumed dead since she entered and never returned from Japan's Aokigahara Forest, a restricted area near Mount Fuji where people frequently go to commit suicide. Her intuition about the safety of her sister, however, suggests otherwise: that Jess is still alive and could, possibly, need her help. Against the wishes of her fiancee, Rob (Eoin Macken), Sara flies to Japan by herself and gets settled into a hotel near the forest, where her sister stayed. Efforts to find someone to go with her into The Forest are unsuccessful, until she runs into Aiden (Taylor Kinney), an experienced journalist who agrees -- along with a trail guide -- to go with Sara into the woods. With warnings from locals circulating in her head about the haunted and dangerous nature of the forest, she defiantly embarks on her journey to locate her sister, only to discover that those warnings had some credibility.

The Forest boasts more than enough elements that could elevate its atmosphere without any trouble: claustrophobic angles accentuating Sara's fish-outta-water place in a foreign country; the superstitions and metaphysics of Japanese culture; and the hazy expanses of the sprawling forests themselves. Despite the controversy over using the Aokigahara for a low-brow production like a horror flick, its storied history does add a real-world downhearted tempo to the search for a troubled twin sister within the area, complimented by the mental effects one could endure -- or think they're enduring -- while traversing such a bleak place. Director Jason Zada transforms the forest into an eerie psychological battleground reminiscent of Silent Hill or The Blair Witch Project, using the despondence of people choosing to die in this place to give it a contemplative edge. These things emerge through lumbering exposition and rigid minor performances, but the film still builds curiosity over what'll appear behind the trees and in the corners of people's minds once they enter the forbidden area.

Thing is, Natalie Dormer's primary character, Sara, doesn't offer a particularly remarkable or deep headspace to explore, a dutiful sister whose personality relies on the interesting attributes of other people for hers to appear interesting, even with the tragedy of her past. That might've been allowable had The Forest continued down the path of standard jump-scares, but the script restrains its horror inclinations in service of paranormal drama, attempting to respect the Aokigahara's lineage -- well, as much as they can with dead bodies and visible specters -- and the uncanny bond between twin sisters that tells them whether one's in trouble or not. In fact, Sara's sister could've been a more engaging heroine, a darker girl who digs poetry and relocates to a foreign country for a therapeutic change in surroundings. Sara lacks that personality, no ambitions or interests beyond bailing her sister out of difficult situations, which casts a shadow over the limited dramatic potency. Being a stranger in a strange land under duress becomes her only compelling trait, and that naturally limits the idiosyncratic allure that brought Natalie Dormer's bodice-wearing characters to life.

By walking softly along the border between traditional horror and mystical drama, the search for Sara's sister within the historic forest disrupts one's patience with its protracted dullness, extended by a lack of tension and cumbersome attempts at sentiment by Aiden's inquisitive prompts and forthright flirtations. Smooth camerawork follows their hike throughout the forest -- filmed in Serbia as a substitute for the off-limits area -- while anticipating the next dead body or pitched tent of a potential suicide victim, accompanied by obligatory explanations and concerns for what Sara's seeing in the forbidden lands. The Forest does pick up a bit of energy when the line between what's really happening in the Aokigahara blurs with the tricks being played on Sara's mind, driven by dream sequences and ghostly apparitions that confer with the warnings expressed to her before she embarked on her journey. Those effects are mild, though, and would've been far more intriguing had Dormer been reacting to them in the skin of a more complex individual.

Despite how The Forest diminishes its tension by virtually announcing the arrival of its few scare tactics -- overlong gaps of silence, suggestive angles, Dormer's widened eyes -- there's still enough paranormal intrigue here driving toward Sara's discovery of her twin sister's fate and the psychological torment she endures along the way. Sadly, those curiosities also become the film's undoing when the boundary separating reality and psychosis completely disappears, where the rules behind how Sara interacts with the Aokigahara's deceptions undercut the real drama surrounding her search, including who she can and cannot trust in her surroundings. Granted, everyone did warn us that bad things happen to the people who enter, but the murky and uncontrollable powers of the area force an ominous supernatural ending onto the search that lacks both weight and overall purpose. Without the scares to fill that dramatic void, all that's left surrounding the spirited talent of Natalie Dormer is a shrug-worthy, tepid stroll of a ghost story, one that'll get buried and fade from memory soon enough.

Note: Film Review From Theatrical Coverage: Here


Video and Audio:

The Forest revels in the moodiness built both on the outskirts of the focal location and in the woodlands itself, frequently captured with a faint blue hue and graininess that was present during its theatrical distribution. Universal's 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer boasts bountiful details throughout both atmospheres, from the grimy textures of a basement and rusticity of a Japanese bar to the decay on corpses. Close-ups on Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney discover immaculate details while scanning their facial features for subtle reactions, while fine elements in the zipper on a tent, textiles, and the crags of an underground cavers project incredible natural sharpness. The intentions of the contrast balance create lighter black levels in some darker interior sequences, which elevate the grain as well, but the digital quality remains in intact. Once the activity reaches the forest, the rich greens and deep browns of the foliage take over, projecting beautifully eerie textures and a splendid grasp on fine details throughout the trees. The modest but handsome photography looks great in HD.

At first, the DTS-HD Master Audio track moves along at a fairly standard, strong, but unremarkable pace, amplifying a few brisk scare tactics and the subtle atmosphere of an airport and a school with faint rear-channel activity. Dialogue stays clear throughout, well-pitched and aware of the locations, while the track conveys the stillness of the background in scenes without any distortion. It's only once the activity reaches the forest that the surround elements truly take shape, where the rustling of trees and other eeriness in the distance travels to the rear channels. The thud of bodies and the spike in musical jump-scares tap into firm lower-end activity, while the crunch of feet atop woodland debris -- both running and walking -- and other mild horror-movie effects amply test the higher-end clarity of the track to satisfying degrees. This isn't the most exciting soundtrack out there, but the quality of the Master Audio treatment properly supports the persistent eeriness of the track without any hang-ups. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are available.


Special Features:

The prominent extra available on the Blu-ray is an Audio Commentary with Director Jason Zada, which should be rather satisfying for fans of the film. He's very open about all of the shooting locations he uses throughout the film (both on-location and created for the film), while also discussing small computer-generated elements, elaborations on the story's eerie machinations and character quirks, and the modest origins of small moments in the film: walking around Tokyo, the purpose of jump-scares, and early foreshadowing. Zada elaborates on the usage of Serbia as a substitute for the forest, as well as last-minute additions to the script and some of the nuances of contemporary Japanese culture. Then, he moves into discussing the process of capturing the forest itself, filming small moments with steadicam and other motivations for the tempo that he achieves. It's a very low-key track, but it shines a lot of light on constructing the film.

Along with a series of Galleries -- Behind-the-Scenes Photos, Set Illustrations, Visual Effects / Make-Up Concept Art, Model Cave PHotos, and Storyboards -- The Forest also arrives with a short but nice featurette entitled Exploring The Forest (8:06, 16x9 HD), largely placing attention on interviews with Jason Zada, producer David S. Goyer, and Natalie Dormer as they discuss the process of realizing the Japanese atmosphere, fleshing out the characters, and the supernatural components of the film. A few nice behind-the-scenes shots of the makeup and filming are dispersed between the interviews, concept sketches, and generous clips from the film, culminating in a relatively standard but above-par press kit featurette.


Final Thoughts:

While The Forest didn't rub me the wrong way in the same fashion that it did with other critics, it's difficult not to see the missed opportunities hinged on the Japanese atmosphere and the presence of Natalie Dormer as the heroine. Only eerie in spurts, totally indicative of its PG-13 rating through the blood and scares, and constantly struggling to deal with the detached nature of the heroine, it's a shrug-worthy horror film that's really only worth a Rental for the flickers of atmosphere and the innate grace of Dormer as she shuffles through the haunted woodlands.



Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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