The location is the star in “The Forest,” a horror-chiller set in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, reportedly one of the world’s most popular suicide spots. With its combination of ghostly folklore and real corpses, it’s the kind of destination you might find on the itinerary of a Goth backpacker, right up with Ukraine’s abandoned Pripyat city (the subject of its own horror film, “The Chernobyl Diaries”). Although Aokigahara is played here by Serbia’s Tara National Park, it’s an alluringly creepy setting for a movie.
“The Forest” begins with Sara Price, a well-heeled young American, waking from a nightmare: Her twin, Jess, who teaches English in Japan, is in trouble. The sisters share a near-psychic connection, one that grew stronger after their parents’ deaths, and Sara follows the distress call all the way to Aokigahara. An American travel writer, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), volunteers to accompany her into the forest with a Japanese guide, Michi, played by Yukiyoshi Ozawa (son of the symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa). Michi warns them to stay on the path and beware of any apparitions. “They’re in here,” he says, tapping his temple.
Written by Ben Ketai and two others, “The Forest” deserves credit for attempting to set up a Hitchcockian psychological mystery. Natalie Dormer, of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” plays both the blond Sara and the punky brunette Jess in a performance that, superficially at least, recalls Kim Novak’s light-and-dark roles in “Vertigo.” Dormer feels strangely stilted, though. Sara’s emotional needle rarely flickers despite her occasional screams, while Jess is a snarky, eyelinered stereotype. Far more convincing is Kinney (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as a man who seems too good to be true. His pretty eyes sometimes take on a disturbingly wolfish gleam.
First-time director Jason Zada seems genuinely interested in the subculture that develops among potential suicides — the ambivalent ones bring tents — but to get his necessary jolts he falls back on overused tropes like cackling old crones and creepy kids’ choirs. Hidden somewhere in “The Forest” is a richer, more complex movie struggling to escape.