Directed by Jason Zada, Starring Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney

*** of 10

This is the feature directorial debut of Jason Zada, who’s previous career was-and this is not a joke-a digital marketer, notable for creating the Elf Yourself promotion for OfficeMax. Somebody thought it was a good idea to give this man $10 million to make a movie, along with 3 writers with a combined one previous credit on a feature film production. “The Forest” is exactly as bad as you would expect a movie with those credits to be, but of course, you already knew that. The state of existing as a PG-13 horror movie released in January should tip everyone off that this will not be a great film, or even a fun horror experience. Still, it could have been better than it was. The lack of experience behind the camera is very obvious, and it prevents the film from being enjoyable in any way.

Right away “The Forest” stars on a bad note, with an incoherent piece of nonlinear storytelling. The first scene is a dream. After that Natalie Dormer is on a plane to Japan, while flashing back to telling a man (who is never given an identity or relation to her) what she is about to do. Then she gets off the plane and takes a cab around a city, while flashing back to some time before that, as she calls someone about her missing sister-the reason why she is in the cab at that time. It seemed to me like a bad case of obvious studio cuts, where a 15 minute sequence had to be watered down in half in order to meet the arbitrary 90 minute run time limit. The problem is that this out-of-order plotting doesn’t stop. The film is constantly moving back in time to when Natalie Dormer was a child to show the audience things that they’ve already been told. It’s a never-ending stream of exposition that the writers don’t even make an attempt to disguise as anything else.

To make one thing very clear, the actors are not at fault here. Natalie Dormer does the best she can with a script that forgets to give her a personality. The angle of playing twins is wasted, as she appears on screen with herself very little, but Dormer is clearly committed to the role. As anybody who as watched “Game of Thrones” can attest to, she is a talented actress when given a good script and competent direction. This is the theatrical debut of Rina Takasaki as a creepy Japanese schoolgirl. She is either a child prodigy or a naturally creepy Japanese schoolgirl in real life, because this role is perfect for her in every way. Takasaki throws herself into her performance, nailing every single disturbing look in her big scene at the start of the third act. Chicago Fire star Taylor Kinney is not as good playing the male lead Aidan, but it would be unfair to put any of the film’s failures on him. He’s fine in a role that doesn’t require very much ability, but he can’t elevate the material in any way.

I could spend days nitpicking at the moderate logical flaws (especially a stupid scene in which Natalie Dormer asks a man if he’s seen her sister by showing him a picture, instead of showing herself because they are identical twins played by the same actress), but the big problem here is that nothing in “The Forest” is even slightly scary. Every scare is a jump scare, they all bring an obnoxious music sting with them, and they’re all isolated scares instead of the payoff to an actually frightening atmosphere. None of the scenes with jumps have anything to do with the plot or characters. I suppose the new horror trend is to actively step away from the movie and include a scare in a dream sequence that doesn’t relate to what the audience was watching a minute ago. It makes sense in a few places. The whole gimmick of the film is that the forest makes people see hallucinations, which provide an in-universe excuse for these dream sequences. If these events came together to build to something better, these hallucinations could have created a strong mood to work with. Instead, the events of a previous scene are forgotten by the next. The most frustrating of these is the 5 minute creation and unexplained end of a twist in which Aidan, Dormer’s guide in the forest, is revealed to have lied about his life. This causes tension and distrust between the two, and was the only creepy aspect of the entire film. It’s the only time that the writers choose to explore the psychological toll of the forest, instead of exploiting it. Still, she trusts him again after a few minutes of walking around on her own.

The score and cinematography are painfully bland. It’s the same music you’ve heard in a thousand other nature horror movies. Ominous winds and animal sounds, “disturbing” human whispers, repetitive sound drains and swells, and very little in the way of an actual composed score. The main theme is a proof of this. In spite of being only 1:16 long, it contains two drain and swells, lots of human whispering, and only starts playing music in the last 20 seconds. That’s expected ground for a film like “The Forest” to cover, but Emmy winner Bear McCreary is a fantastic composer, and the score could have been something special if the film crew let it be heard. The camera doesn’t do anything unique or engaging. There are no long takes and no movement. The worst thing that the cameras in a film like this could be is static, but they consistently are. It doesn’t need to be innovative to be impressive; a simple establishing shot over the forest could have been great if framed well, but (possibly because of budget restraints), nothing like this is ever attempted. I’m not surprised at all that this is a rookie cinematographer. It looks like the studio grabbed somebody as cheap as possible and told them not to waste too much time putting effort into shots. The camera exists so that things can jump towards it, and again, while that’s not surprising for a movie like this, it is disappointing.

That phrase can be looped again to describe “The Forest” as a whole. It’s not like the film fell drastically below my expectations. I expected this to be a poor effort all around, and in that regard I was surprised by the actors. But there was a little bit of hope inside of me that it would turn out good, because a good film can be made about a suicide forest, and Natalie Dormer can be the star of something great. There have definitely been worse horror movies, and there have been worse horror movies that got sequels, so maybe a second Forest movie can effectively utilize the premise. If you like forgettable jump scare horror, this is more of the same, and if you set your expectations really low you might be able to find a scene or two that you’ll like, but for me, “The Forest” isn’t worth seeing under any circumstances.