Sydney Film Festival Review: The Forest of Lost Souls (Portugal, 2017) is an eerie and unconventional horror

Out of all the cinematic genres, horror is, in my opinion, the best outlet for creative storytelling. Whether in a metaphorical sense, a symbolic sense, or just nuts-and-bolts mainstream filmmaking, horror can engage, thrill, scare and surprise, regardless of what it looks like on the outside.

Case in point, David Cronenberg‘s The Fly. With a Cronenberg film involving a mutant fly, you expect the body horror, blood, and gore. But underneath all of that is a tragic love story and the ramifications one would face when a loved one is going through terminal sickness and how it affects the relationship.

In the case of The Forest of Lost Souls, it feels very similar to another Portuguese horror film, The Eyes of My Mother, due to its equally slight running time, the black and white cinematography and the fact that they both combine grindhouse tropes with an arthouse aesthetic. While The Eyes of My Mother deals with themes of loss and loneliness, The Forest of Lost Souls deals with coming-of-age, finding one’s place in the world and differing views of death.

With all of that in mind, will The Forest of Lost Souls succeed in both providing sufficient entertainment for horror fans as well as giving some food for thought for those looking for something different?

A young woman, Carolina, and an old man, Ricardo, fatefully meet in a forest, which is famous for being a place where people decide to commit suicide. Together, they decide to briefly postpone killing themselves to explore the forest and also to continue talking to one another, as Ricardo and Carolina find themselves intrigued by one another.

However, as they travel further into the forest it becomes clear one of the pair has other reasons for being in the forest and is not who they would have the other believe them to be, revealing there is more than meets the eye.

The Forest of Lost Souls is thankfully a very distinct, brisk, unconventional horror film that delivers a huge impact despite the limited resources and short running time would lead you to believe.

The obvious draw of the film is the black and white cinematography by Francisco Lobo; a fantastic complement to the surreal and dreamlike world that director Jose Pedro Lopes was going for. Similar to the black and white sequences in Lars Von Trier‘s Antichrist, it adds a surprising amount of tension and weirdness that it can easily put the audience at unease.

The element of surrealism is also counterbalanced by the grounded nature of the story, which is a major factor of what makes the film scary. Based on a real place called Aokigahara (aka The Suicide Forest, or Sea of Trees), people venture into the forest to commit suicide. But in the case of The Forest of Lost Souls, it serves as an eerie backdrop for what is essentially an origin story for the antagonist of the film. It is executed so well that it feels authentic and it could possibly happen in real life. The fact that the film doesn’t cop out in its conclusion makes it disturbingly linger in one’s mind.

The use of modern technology and social media is also dealt with rather well; especially with how incredibly easy it is to interact (which is a nice way of putting it) with other people as well as how we present ourselves to the world. It is the kind of effort that Lopes commits to his film that makes it more substantial than one would surmise, even with its short running time.

But does the meat-and-potatoes tropes of horror pack a punch? Yes, it certainly does. The violence and kills are sudden, understated and tastefully done; and that is thanks to the tension wrung from the cinematography, the bizarrely retro score by Emanuel Gracio and the assured direction by Lopes. Some of the shots where the antagonist is lurking behind people or in the background is reminiscent of John Carpenter‘s Halloween.

The acting is also noteworthy with the subtlety and ingenuity of the performances. Daniela Love is great as the impulsive and knowledgeable teen, Carolina, while Jorge Mota is compelling as the conflicted family man, Ricardo. The two share an understated and natural chemistry with one another and it makes the first act of the film very serene. But of course, there’s more lurking beneath the surface when one of them has more than a few demons up their sleeve. The supporting cast are all fine, but it is Love that stands out from the rest (no pun intended).

As for its flaws, the first act may be a bit slow and the abrupt change in tone in the second act may turn off viewers, as it almost turns into an entirely different film. But considering the flaws, The Forest of Lost Souls is a worthwhile horror experience thanks to its grounded story, Lopes’ assured direction, Lobo’s beautifully surreal cinematography, Gracio’s retro creepy musical score and Love’s standout lead performance.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Forest of Lost Souls screens with the short Behind as part of Sydney Film Festival on the 12th and the 18th of June. For tickets and more details head HERE.