[Screen It]

(2016) (Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney) (PG-13)

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Horror: A woman looks for her twin sister in a haunted forest known for the suicides that take place inside it.
Sara Price (NATALIE DORMER) has always felt a special connection with her twin sister, Jess (NATALIE DORMER), even when they're separated by an ocean due to Jess taking a job teaching English to schoolgirls in Tokyo. When Sara learns that her sister has been reported missing and was last seen heading into the Aokigahara Forest, notorious for being a place where people go to commit suicide, she leaves her husband, Rob (EOIN MACKEN), back in the U.S. while she flies to Japan.

There, she learns about the legend of the forest and the spirits within it that will make one sad and then suicidal should they wander off the main path. Sara doesn't believe any of that, but travel writer Aiden (TAYLOR KINNEY) seems to, and despite having just met her, he arranges for forest guide Michi (YUKIYOSHI OZAWA) to lead them through the dense woods to look for her sister. As they do so, Michi warns her that anything weird she sees is in her head and not real.

When they find Jess' tent, Sara decides to stay there overnight, despite Michi's strong objections, and Aiden decides to join her to provide protection. As the night and then next day arrive, strange things start happening in the forest, including encounters with people or ghosts, one of whom warns Sara not to trust Aiden as she continues searching for her missing sister.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Our reviewing policy for films that aren't shown in advance to critics (or are done so late the night before they open) is that we'll only provide a few paragraphs about the film's artistic merits or, more accurately, lack thereof. After all, life is too short to spend any more effort than that on a movie that even the releasing studio knows isn't any good (which is why they hid it from reviewers before its release).

You can't always believe what you see on the Internet (duh), but upon hearing that this year's first horror film, "The Forest," is loosely based on a real-life place in Japan (the Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mount Fuji) where people go to kill themselves, I had to look that up. And some of the resultant images show corpses still hanging from or otherwise attached to trees where their former occupants took their lives.

I have no idea if the images are real or staged (it would seem odd that the authorities would leave some bodies there, unless the intent is to attempt to scare off the suicidal from going through with the deed), but it certainly gives the place a spooky feel via pictures. If real, that aura would only be amplified if experienced in person. At night. By yourself. Or while looking for your twin who's disappeared there.

The question is whether this film from director Jason Zada -- who works from the script by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai -- is scary, spooky or at least unsettling in some sort of similar fashion. At 95-some minutes, at least it's not bloated.

But aside from some telegraphed and otherwise anticipated jump scenes (the fallback for filmmakers when they don't really have truly frightening material), it's not scary. Worse yet, it's not that interesting either, and we never come to care or thus worry about the protagonist as the ghouls start popping up all around her. The real Aokigahara Forest might be a spooky and unsettling place, but the fictitious film that takes place inside it is anything but that. "The Forest" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 7, 2016 / Posted January 8, 2016

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