Just on a basic conceptual level, The Forest was going to be a problematic film for its use of a clichéd white woman stock horror protagonist in a foreign setting based upon a real-world epidemic. The titular forest is Aokigahara, a destination in Japan for the suicidal to kill themselves anonymously and presumably without shame to their families. This is still a major problem in Japan, so the choice to use the location as the setting for a horror film is particularly tasteless, never mind the blatant appropriation of Japanese culture in order to titillate American shock-horror sensibilities. But even assuming that the problematic aspects of the premise didn’t already work against the film’s success, The Forest is dead on arrival anyway as a shoddy piece of film-making.
Natalie Dormer (of Game of Thrones fame) plays Sara, a woman in search of her lost twin sister who was last seen entering Aokigahara. Sara travels to Japan and starts to investigate when she meets Aiden, a reporter who claims to be able to help guide her through the forest. Despite warnings that the forest causes hallucinations and that ghostly apparitions reside there, Sara sets out to find her sister anyway.
What could have made this film at least a bit more tolerable would have been more of an emphasis on the uniquely Japanese aspects of the terrain. References to Japanese mythology and the role that ghosts play in Japanese popular culture would have been welcome to at least justify the presence of an American outsider character in this remote location. However, the forest functions much as any other forest in any other horror film, haunted by creatures that aren’t even mildly shocking or scary to behold. This is exactly the kind of horror film on autopilot that was responsible for the collapse in quality the horror genre sustained in the early 2000s, and here we are again, revisiting the same pool of tropes.
But the worst aspect of this film is Dormer’s portrayal of Sara, or rather her lack of any. Sara is an immediately unlikeable character, from her unwillingness to try to communicate with locals in anything but English to her constantly angry and bitter attitude. Unlikeable characters can still be interesting with an appropriate amount of depth or reason for their unsavoriness, but Dormer’s Sara has none, which is likely much more the director's and screenwriter’s faults than Dormer’s. As the film portrays Sara, she’s a dull entitled American stumbling through Japan as if searching for her lost sister is an inconvenience rather than a matter of life and death, and we’re supposed to relate to that. Even audience members who actually behave in real life as Sara does in the film couldn’t have the self-awareness to think of her as a relatable human being.
So yes, The Forest is confirmed horrible as its premise seemed to dictate. It isn’t surprising that those involved in the production of such an obviously tone-deaf story would not have the talent to even make the film moderately entertaining. It’s a slow slog of a film that seems to pretend at being a character study for a character that barely qualifies as one-dimensional, and the horror elements are token and lazy. But the greatest sin of all is still the exploitation of a real-world suicide epidemic as the basis for a ghost story. How tasteless.