It is rare occurrence for me to have such a violent negative reaction to a film as I had toward THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS. That is the problem with movies that have real potential: so many of them fail to live up to it. As a viewer, that is one of the most frustrating experiences I can have. On the one hand, that can be seen as something of a compliment since it means the film initially had enough potential to be promising. But it squanders all that potential in a third act that I suppose the filmmakers thought was chilling in its ambivalence. But I call bullshit on that idea. This is a movie that eventually settles on giving the middle finger to the audience, which makes me want to shoot the bird right back at it—not least of which because I find the moral of the film to be incredibly wrong-headed and offensive in the worst of ways.
Built around the idea that there is a forest in Portugal where suicidal people go to take their own lives, THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS is already on shaky ground with its premise before the movie actually starts. After a slightly surreal prologue of a young woman (Lília Lopes) loitering in the forest before she drinks a vial of poison by the side of a lake before wading into the water, we are then introduced to Ricardo (Jorge Mota), a middle-aged man who enters the same forest with plans to kill himself with a dagger.
Ricardo seems unsure of his plan even before he meets Carolina (Daniela Love), a teenager who is annoyed that he picked a spot not far from her chosen suicide location. Carolina is full of useful knowledge about the best ways to kill yourself, noting the tell-tale signs that someone is committed to the idea, how to spot those who are just looking for attention, and how to be prepared for an extended stay in the forest if you take a long time to go through with the deed.
The section of the film with Ricardo and Carolina walking through the forest while she unloads all of her knowledge on him is the best that THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS gets. While it is played a little too much for cutesy comedy as Ricardo quickly becomes a hypocrite trying to talk Carolina out of killing herself, the two characters play off each other with an easy chemistry and the lovely black and white cinematography by Francisco Lobo captures the beauty of the forest through which they walk. The sequence takes an unexpected turn when Carolina offers Ricardo a vial of poison that is identical to the poison seen in the prologue. From there, any thoughts of the film going in cutesy/quirky directions go out the window.
The initial big twist and change in tone actually work very well as writer/director José Pedro Lopes steers the film into horror territory with a skilled hand. But almost as quickly as the film changes directions and appears to be on its way to something truly unnerving, he kills all momentum by moving on to Ricardo’s dysfunctional family and their unsurprising connection to the young woman seen in the prologue.
The idea that the suicide of one family member can destroy an entire family is a sad and realistic one, but the idea that a family deserves to be destroyed because of the suicide of one of their members is something altogether uglier that borders on disgusting. While Lopes stops just short of making this claim with his film, he comes close enough to that very questionable moral and so favors a character who regards people who commit suicide with such open contempt that the final third act reveal turned my stomach.
In a way, the scolding nature of the film toward those who are so consumed by depression or grief that suicide becomes an option for them is very similar to the type of pious tone found in Christian scare films like THE BURNING HELL or M 10.28. While those specific titles did not really address the topic of suicide, they did approach the horror genre with a very traditional, Old Testament-centric viewpoint. But here’s the kicker: THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS does not even have the entertainment value of those more histrionic, over-the-top films. After the first act, it is a largely boring film where we know nothing about the characters that are being punished by another unknowable character.
It takes a lot for a film to get under my skin and anger me the way THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS did, so I suppose Lopes has done something right. While I can see how the film could be appealing to someone else (I have the feeling that I’m going to be in the critical minority on this one), it simply infuriated me—which I can also see being a recommendation to some.
THE FOREST OF THE LOST SOULS opens in theaters and hits VOD on Friday, August 3.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)