At least “The Forest” isn’t a found-footage film.
But it does borrow footage from many sources, ranging from “The Shining” to “The Patty Duke Show.” To his credit, first-time director Jason Zada also ambitiously includes hints of Orpheus and Eurydice and the Forest of the Suicides from “The Inferno.” For the most part, however, he settles for such tried and trite horror staples as phony scares; spooky music; fake-looking cadavers; misty landscapes; it’s-only-a-dream sequences; p.o.v. shots from menacing, unseen observers; and a seedy correspondent for an Australian travel magazine.
And psychically linked twins. Sara (Natalie Dormer), the more staid of the pair, always knows when the depressive, self-destructive Jess (also Dormer) gets into trouble and she must dash off and rescue her. Even when Jess has moved to Japan, Sara is on her wavelength, so when Jess wanders into the Aokigahara Forest, the picturesque “Sea of Trees” where many go to commit suicide, Sara is on the next flight to Tokyo.
Who needs the Forest when Japan itself is so creepy? Before she even leaves the city Jess gets the heebie-jeebies from a still twitching, bisected prawn served up at a sushi bar, assaultive old people, and diabolical schoolgirls in uniforms. The woods seem downright tranquil in comparison; and accompanied by Aiden (Taylor Kinney), the expatriate travel writer whose naughty smile might conceal something more sinister, she spends the night in the woods, where troubled minds are possessed by demons. It’s like “Naked and Afraid,” but with naked psyches.
Zada gets credible performances from Dormer and Kinney, but their characters undergo such unlikely psychological contortions that these efforts are to no avail. Yukiyoshi Ozawa as the forest guide whose warnings go unheeded provides the film’s most moving and unsettling moment when Sara asks him why she should obey the “Do Not Leave the Path” signs that are everywhere. “Because you are sad,” he says. Had Zada strayed more from the generic path into such unknown territory, “The Forest” might have had genuine depth and darkness.
Directed by Jason Zada. Written by Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell, and Nick Antosca. Starring Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa. At Boston Common, Fenway, and suburbs. 94 minutes. PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and images).Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.