Things like drinking games and “RiffTrax” were invented for movies like “In the Forest,” which are very bad but need a little participatory help to become so-bad-they’re-good. This quasi-horror tale of bickering vacationers running afoul of disturbed locals strings together various well-worn clichés with a notable lack of suspense, plausibility and style, while excelling in the realm of characters behaving like complete idiots. Simultaneous with streaming-platforms release on Jan. 28, Vertical Entertainment is opening Hector Barron’s feature on a couple dozen screens nationwide. That might normally seem a modest number, but in this particular case it represents a considerable leap of faith.
Among the bad ideas enthusiastically embraced straight off here is making our ostensible protagonists as irritating as possible. Senior Stan (Lyman Ward) is piloting the RV as he drives middle-aged daughter Helen (Debbon Ayer) and her young-adult offspring Emily (Cristina Spruell) on a camping vacation intended to give everyone a little tranquil family togetherness. But Helen is a controlling nag, while Emily acts like a bratty child. They’re constantly at each other’s throats, to grandpa’s understandable exasperation. Why have they chosen this kind of vacation anyway, when none of them even seem to know how to put up a tent, or anything else related to the outdoors?
That lack is soon rendered irrelevant when an angry, armed property owner (Don Baldaramos) shows up, telling them they are trespassing and must move to public campsites 10 miles away. The visitors grudgingly consent, but then realize they’ve managed to get their vehicle stuck in a rut. In attempting to maneuver it out, Stan suffers a serious accidental injury. Because Helen’s response to this crisis is to both freeze and panic (naturally, there’s no cell service), the trio do absolutely nothing until the next day, when she volunteers to go seek help on foot.
After briefly freaking out for no obvious reason in the surrounding woods, this lands her at the isolated, dilapidated house of the landowner. He’s out, but she manages to get inside. There, she’s disturbed to find the phone not working, then even more to discover a teenage boy (Mathew Thomas Odette) being held captive in a locked room. Clearly something bad is happening here, though making the wrong assumptions about it proves fateful not just for the stranded family, but for the boy’s other minders (Sharon Sharth, Time Winters) once they show up.
Running a gamut between the restrained and the scenery-chewing (pretty much Sharth’s department), the performers are adequate. The material they’ve got to work with, however, is not. Horror audiences have come to expect a certain level of “characters blundering stupidly into peril.” But “Forest” really pushes that envelope, making the principals so annoyingly hapless we do not root for their salvation. Nor does the weak dialogue shy from making a villain actually snarl, “I’m gonna get you!” as if in a children’s scary bedtime story.
Indifferently staged action, such as it is, is too often clumsy and silly, the editorial pace draggy just when it should pull tight. As editor, Barron frequently can think of no better way to transition between scenes than awkward blackouts. And the three credited cinematographers provide bright, nondescript imagery to a film that badly needs some menacing atmospherics. “In the Forest” feels so haphazardly thrown-together, it doesn’t even bother to explain just why any of this is happening (i.e. what’s actually going on in that house) — at least not until a post-end-credits audio insert that feels exactly like the “Oops!” afterthought it most likely is.
On the very slender plus side, some drone shots of the rural northeastern California locations briefly lift the technical presentation, while Elias Serpa’s original score is likewise of a more professional grade than other factors here.
“Forest” is poorly conceived and crafted enough to tick off horror fans expecting something more intense, or at least more entertaining. But it’s also inept and ludicrous enough that they may find it quite enjoyable, if in ways unintended, when watched with a few brewskis under belt.
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