Stars: Aidan Bristow, Johnny Young, Christina Myhr and Michael Madsen
The Forest is a surprising horror movie to come out of the States. It feels far more Oriental in its outlook as if it was really a Japanese or Korean film made with Americans. Partly this is because it was shot in Japan with a number of Asian actors and a good deal of Japanese dialogue. Partly it's to do with the attitudes of Shan Serafin, who wrote, produced and directed the film and also took the lead role of Det David Stone, though he snuck that admission in at the very end of the credits. Certainly he's a better director than actor but he's impressive in that vein too, reminding somewhat of Adrian Paul but more realistic and sincere. Stone is an American cop working at the Tokyo Bureau of Interpol and Serafin is believable beyond the fact that he's obviously bilingual. He's an active Buddhist and presumably has an interest in myth, superstition and culture in Japan because there's plenty of it in this, his debut script. It's a shame that American distributors retitled his film Forest of the Living Dead, because there isn't a single zombie in sight.
Stone finds himself caught up in a fascinating case, a ghost story of revenge triggered by a suicide in Aokigahara, better known as the Sea of Trees or Suicide Forest. This is a real forest at the foot of Mount Fuji that is the world's second most popular suicide spot, after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. More than thirty people take their own life there every year and the numbers have been gradually increasing recently. It's such a well known spot for suicides that there has been an annual body hunt conducted since 1970 by volunteers. The plot unfolds carefully and with depth but at heart is a reasonably simple thing: the cold deliberate revenge of Ariaana Mills, an American model whose boyfriend has left her. Officially she's been missing for a couple of months but really she's been stuck in some sort of Japanese purgatory for a mystical 49 days after killing herself in Aokigahara. She wants revenge on him and everyone hanging around him who didn't like her too.
Kyle Lardner is fine as Ariaana though she is kept suitably in the background for most of the movie and appears more through fear than visuals. We hear about how obsessed she was with fashion photographer Jason West, we see the 'you'll never leave me' word art that populates her diary and we witness the results of her vengeance. First it's Jason's clingy new girlfriend, Nichole Williamson, another model who has travelled to Japan to be with him and parades around in front of him naked but for a set of skimpy dresses held up for him to ignore. He must be truly dedicated to his art if he would really rather look at a set of negatives than her butt. It's when he's about to tell her that he loves her, with prompting, that the noises begin. As he investigates, someone who isn't physically there tears out her cheeks with her fingernails. Next time the words are imminent a picture flies off the wall. Her modelling career is over, of course, even though we don't see the damage.
Serafin aims very much at a suspenseful ghost story rather than a gorefest and he does a solid job, though a few scenes run too long and the dialogue is sometimes forced. He succeeds mostly through plenty of quirky detail that escalates from Nichole discovering in the hospital everything that she had blocked out of the night before. Anyone with a background in Japanese freakiness won't be surprised to find spirals cropping up too. I still don't know why spirals scare the crap out of the Japanese but Uzumaki, a horror manga by Junji Ito, is certainly something to behold. Serafin had less than a million bucks to play with, maybe a lot less, but he backs up these freaky details with clever filmmaking, stylish but without pandering to modern conventions. Subliminal images punctuate the film. Other scenes are sets of shots that blip slowly in and out like a pulse. The camera often moves to reveal new things that weren't there before, aided by clever editing.
Nichole leaves the film relatively soon, after flying to Fiji and sawing off her hand on a balcony. It's not surprising that she went nuts, given that she's presented by repetitions of 'Die, you cheating whore!' written in blood on her walls, each change in angle showing another instance that wasn't there a moment before. Fortunately there are other young ladies in Jason's company to follow in her stead, all of whom are played by actors with small but quickly growing filmographies. Valerie is the most obvious, because she's a very American character in a very Eastern story. She's his PA who constantly provides the sort of happily profane American reaction we expect in American films but not ones like this. Christina Myhr does it well, in what may be her biggest role thus far. Lisa Cullen is capable as Katana, her fashion designer roommate. Sayo Haraishi is gorgeous as Reiko, a backup model, who I could happily watch for longer than this movie runs.
Best of all is Johnny Young, who plays Koji, initially a clumsy assistant photographer but soon a sort of master hacker. Like the references to Japanese culture and superstition, this hacking gives a very different tone to the movie. It's far from realistic, of course, but somehow it's mysteriously unlike any other far from realistic hacking I've seen on screen. So much of the bad IT in movies is recycled, but this is completely new bad IT and it's rather fascinating to me. It's Koji who discovers the connection to Aokigahara, while hacking into Interpol and intercepting a fax Stone sends to his boss, Lt Brandon Ross, a fax that details that the internal lacerations discovered on Nichole's body in Fiji were the Japanese kanji for the Suicide Forest. Young has a thick Asian accent but somehow remains absolutely clear throughout and I'm still not quite sure how that works. He's more fun to watch than the official male leads, though he doesn't get anywhere near as much screen time.
Serafin gets the biggest part and is up to the task, though he's too in control to get away with his more outrageous proclamations. He's great with regular dialogue but flounders a little when he's supposed to be panicked. Aidan Bristow, who plays Jason, is a very strange looking actor. He's a handsome sort with piercing Leonardo Di Caprio eyes, but he also has thick mismatched eyebrows that throw the whole thing off. It grounds him and makes him an appropriate choice for a character who isn't Hollywood plastic but who the models fall for anyway. That leaves Michael Madsen, the sole star in this film, who plays Lt Ross. He's fine, not that he really knows how not to be, but fails to dominate proceedings because, like Henry Fonda in Tentacles or George Takei in Bug Buster, he only interacts with one of the primary characters and then entirely over the phone. Obviously he didn't travel to Japan and shot all his scenes back home in the States to be spliced into the picture.
This is a film with flaws but they're entirely forgiveable for a sub-million dollar movie conjured out of the head of a first time filmmaker. Serafin is only 34 years old but has already written a couple of novels, staged a play and here made a movie, as producer, director, writer and star. No, it isn't Citizen Kane, not even close, just as Serafin is not Orson Welles, but it's a quirky and fascinating horror picture that outshines its homegrown competition and proves that it's possible for a western filmmaker to make a eastern movie. I hope that if this succeeds he doesn't end up helming a string of J-horror remakes. He demonstrates that he's above that from the very first scene, where Ariaana looks into the camera, pronounces, 'Let me show you how much I love you,' and promptly suffocates herself in a transparent bag. It's a great start to an indie horror movie and it builds well to an even better finalé that's as appropriate as it's shocking. Serafin is definitely a name to watch.