There is a forest in Japan that’s famous for being a common location for suicides. That’s probably not a good selling point for the Japanese national park system (it really sounds like more of a German thing), but it supplies a decent premise for “The Forest,” a mid-grade, bloodless PG-13 horror flick whose only distinction is that it’s not as aggressively bad as most of the films of this type that are dumped in theaters every January.
Now, the film is set in Japan, but don’t worry, it’s mostly about white people. Beginning with a mushy flurry of disjointed flashbacks (why?), we learn that a young blonde named Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) has received word that her twin sister, Jess, was seen entering the Aokigahara Forest, from which most people do not return. Unable to reach her by phone, Sara flies to Japan to search for her.
Local law enforcement isn’t much help. “After 48 hours, we have to assume the person has gone through with their suicide plan,” says one cop. Whaddaya gonna do, y’know? The people at the ranger station inform Sara that the forest is full of angry, mischievous spirits, and that it’s dangerous to leave the marked path because the ghosts will mess with your mind. This is especially true, the rangers say, if you are sad. Sadness is to forest ghosts what uncovered food is to bears.
At a forest-adjacent bar, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a hunky travel writer who’s doing a story about the place and offers to help her find her sister. Sara is convinced Jess is still alive because they are twins, and twins know when each other are dead. That’s just science. A Japanese guide, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), gives her more reason to hope: sometimes people take a tent into the forest, unsure whether they want to kill themselves or just go camping (same difference, if you ask me). Sure enough, they find a tent with some of Jess’ belongings. Perhaps she is alive and merely lost!
That’s all well and good, but despite the inherently creepy setting — not just woods at night, HAUNTED woods at night — first-time director Jason Zada can’t muster anything more than the standard ghostly visions and hallucinations. To compensate, the screenplay, credited to three individuals who evidently rewrote one another’s work, gives Sara a lot of freaky dreams, thus providing the jolts and jump-scares lacking in her waking life. (Beware of any horror film whose “scariest” parts are in someone’s imagination.) The script also has a few dead ends — most notably a thread about how Jess and Sara’s parents died, which turns out to be irrelevant — suggesting some themes and subplots got lost in the rewrites.
Still, with its eerie setting and its scarcity of sex, nudity, and strong violence, “The Forest” does meet the criteria for, say, a teen slumber party, or a similar gathering of easy-to-please, low-expectations viewers. Which is to say that while it isn’t very good, it isn’t painfully bad, either.
C (1 hr., 35 min.; )