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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Can't Find the Trees from Inside The Forest

Posted By on Tue, Jan 12, 2016 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Natalie Dormer in The Forest - GRAMERCY PICTURES
  • Gramercy Pictures
  • Natalie Dormer in The Forest

Remember when Hollywood went through a phase of remaking dozens of Asian horror films? At first, the cross-cultural translation, or appropriation, looked promising. Directly after her career-altering role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts starred in The Ring in 2002.

The genre, fusing elements of horror with suspense, adhered to a formula: an independent woman undergoes a trial by fire in order to exorcise her personal ghosts and inner demons. It’s a great job for an actress. Not only are men supporting characters but the narrative depends on the lead’s actions and reactions. The arc from practical sceptic to terrified believer requires a demanding range of emotions. If the audience isn’t afraid for her, then the entire movie goes up in smoke.

Watts projected an understandable vulnerability (those cursed VHS tapes!) combined with a maternal stubbornness (I will save my son!). The supporting imagery throughout the film looked as if it had been culled from someone’s specific bed of nightmares. They carried the same grainy texture of a static-filled television screen. But it was this fleshed out specificity that began to dissipate as the American remakes continued to roll out.

Along with its less successful sequel The Ring Two, Sarah Michelle Gellar contended with The Grudge (2004); Jennifer Connelly was drawn into Dark Water (2005); and Jessica Alba began to see again in The Eye (2008), to name just a few. By the time Kristen Wiig parodied the genre in the 2013 SNL skit “Aw Nuts! Mom’s a Ghost!”, those water-logged children’s faces had lost their power to unnerve.

click to enlarge Natalie Dormer in The Forest - GRAMERCY PICTURES
  • Gramercy Pictures
  • Natalie Dormer in The Forest

The Forest is the latest arrival in the genre, and in 2016, shows up a few years past its sell-by date. What was implicit in the best of the earlier films is converted here into an amusement park filled with one long ride of unwanted ectoplasmic attention. Our heroine(s) this time is a set of twin sisters, Sara and Jess, both played by Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones; The Hunger Games). Jess, while teaching abroad, goes missing. Sara journeys into Japan’s Aokigahara Forest to find her.

The film’s setting is a real place. Colloquially, it’s known as the suicide forest. In choosing this locale, the filmmakers felt that using hanging corpses as props to frighten Sara would best illustrate the unhappy fates of the dead. It’s an error both as an artistic choice and in the way it dishonors the lives taken by suicide. The complexity of each individual act is reduced to a costumed gallery of ghouls who are randomly jump cut into the foreground to jolt the audience.

Dormer’s close-ups appear in nearly every frame. For the first half, while the backstory unfolds in flashbacks, she’s a smart actress who succeeds in acquainting us with Sara’s Achilles heel. She lies to someone in a bar about her parents’ death. By intercutting the true story over the false one, the director exposes the character’s inability to confront her past. And then gradually, scene by scene, the script’s initial promise of psychological depth gives way to easy scare tactics. Someone made the decision to economize on story and amp up the chase sequences. Perhaps the Japanese will turn the tables and remake this movie in a way that respects the origin story of its forest full of sorrows.

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