It's hard to imagine a more unsettling setting for a horror movie than Aokigahara, the famed "suicide forest" of Japan to which scores of pilgrims travel each year to end their lives. At the edge of the woods -- which, per Japanese mythology, are rife with demons -- is a sign urging those contemplating this most final of acts to think of their loved ones and reconsider.
That evocative backdrop is largely squandered in Jason Zada's The Forest. Natalie Dormer does double duty as an American who flies halfway around the world in search of her twin sister -- an English teacher in Tokyo who was last seen entering the forest -- and as the missing sibling herself, glimpsed mostly in flashback. Sara is blonde and well-adjusted; Jess is troubled and dependent, as indicated by her dark hair and vaguely goth look. "We're identical twins," Sara tells a skeptic who knows all too well why people trek to Aokigahara. "If she were dead I would just know." This sisterly intuition leads our heroine to believe that her other half is merely on a suicide-forest walkabout, exorcising her own demons by braving those already lurking within Aokigahara.
Dormer steps comfortably into her leading role(s), excelling especially in quieter scenes that build tension and soak us in mood. But she's let down by the demands of a tired script. Difficult to navigate and so thick that they block out all sound coming from beyond their own borders, the real woods of Aokigahara are intrinsically terrifying. In filtering those unique qualities through an overly familiar genre sensibility, the filmmakers have rendered them anything but.