I chose to watch this three-year-old terror movie because of its title: Dark Forest.  It’s a generic title, but I immediately wondered if it might be an allusion to the dark forest theory originated by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.
I am not an advocate of Liu’s theory being the answer to the Fermi paradox, but I was intrigued by the possibility that Dark Forest might be an attempt by filmmaker Roger Boyer to connect the slasher film subgenre to Liu’s theory of predatory civilizations.
Unfortunately, further allusions to Liu’s theory are not evident in this typical B-movie production of young people being terrorized by a maniacal killer in the woods. Instead, Dark Forest merely contains nearly all of the clichéd conventions that are evoked with the description of young people being terrorized by a maniacal killer in the woods.
Beyond their respective titles, the only noticeable connection between Liu’s theory and Boyer’s film is that both involve predation. In Liu’s theory, the predators are advanced interstellar civilizations that prey on less-advanced interstellar civilizations. In Boyer’s film the predator is a stereotypical domestic abuser named Peter (Dennis Scullard), whom I might describe as a Neanderthal except that I see no reason to disparage Neanderthals.
Rather than presenting Peter as a “caveman,” Boyer’s intent might have been to use lighting to present Peter as some sort of demonic figure by filming him against backgrounds of hot colors as he plots his evil plots. In contrast, Peter’s friends sitting on the other side of the room are lit in basic, everyday colors—so Peter has some sort of wild lighting scheme set up in his living room!
Yet, if Boyer intended to symbolize Peter as a demonic figure, that idea is not explored throughout the rest of the film—except, perhaps, in the “dream sequences” involving Emily. However, I will discuss those odd “dream scenes” at the end of this review, as they don’t fit easily into the otherwise straight-forward, chronological narrative Boyer uses to tell his story.
Emily is the object of Peter’s abuse —a live-in girlfriend who is presented as a typical (perhaps stereotypical) victim of prolonged domestic violence. In their research-based article “Emotional Profile of Women Victims of Domestic Violence,” Esmina Avdibegovic and her colleagues note that women who are “victims of domestic violence had higher results in the dimensions of deprivation/depression and aggression/destruction,”  and that description fits Emily well.
Emily’s character seems to have been written based on what we know about abuse victims—and Laurel McArthur portrays the character as exhibiting the basic signs of domestic abuse: “significant cognitive changes, emotional numbing, and avoidance of interpersonal relationships.”
As I watched Dark Forest, I often lost interest in the awkward dialog and banal plot, but I caught myself thinking about a variety of topics the film elicited in my mind—such as the possibility of connecting the social health issue of domestic violence to Liu’s dark forest theory.
However, after such mental meanderings, I always ended up wondering if the main problem with Dark Forest is that Boyer wasn’t able to get the concepts in his head to come out correctly while writing and directing the film—or perhaps I’m trying too much to provide deeper contextual meanings to what is meant to be a superficial slasher film filled with (1) sexually titillating young women, (2) sexually frustrated young men, and (3) mundane images of physical brutality.
Whenever there is any sort of masculine-feminine tension in the film, all of the male characters (not just Peter and his two hesitant cohorts) refer to the women as “bitches.” In turn, the female characters refer to the men as “assholes.”  Unfortunately, these bitch and asshole labels represent just the surface of the atrocious dialogue spattered throughout this splatter film.
The cause of most of the bad dialog is that Boyer attempts to create verisimilitude by having his characters speak to each other matter-of-factly about mundane topics—similar to what Quentin Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction with mafia hitmen Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) discussing “Quarter Pounders with Cheese” while on their way to commit murder:
In Dark Forest, Boyer often has his characters sit around and tell stories to each other in scenes that come across as overly obvious attempts at creating verisimilitude—such as the scene in which Jolene (Weronika Sokalska) tells Michelle and Francine (Veronica Ternopolski and Jalin Desloges) about a co-worker who was terrified of a beetle but whose career goal, ironically, is to become an entomologist.
Compounding the problem is that there is no transition into that scene—just an abrupt cut from the previous scene—and there is no build up to Jolene’s story. She simply blurts it as the scene begins. The scene then ends with Francine asking what an entomologist is, to which Michelle responds very formally as if she’s reading the answer from a dictionary: “One who studies insects.”
In most of the several “verisimilitude scenes,” the actors tend to deliver their lines in a relatively flat manner. It’s as if the viewers are watching an initial read-through of the script rather than an actual performance that has been polished through several days of rehearsal. However, considering the tight budget on which this film was obviously made, there probably wasn’t enough time or money to allow the actors to rehearse and polish their performances. It’s a shame, though, because many of the actors demonstrate in other scenes that they are capable actors.
It is telling that the worst performances were in the scenes that seemed to have no other purpose in the story than to create a sense of verisimilitude. If Boyer actually scripted the lines in those scenes, then the fault would seem to be with the actors and the direction Boyer gave them.
However, it could be that those scenes were largely unscripted improvisational exercises in which Boyer simply told an actor to tell a story about whatever came to mind—in which case the problem is poor improvisational skills in the delivery of the storyteller and the reactions of the listeners.
Not all actors excel in improvisation, but one scene that worked well and had a sense of naturalism seems like it might have been improvised as part of Jolene’s initial plan to make a documentary of the camping trip she and three other women are going on. To make her camping trip documentary, Jolene has a hand-held camera that actually records the “found footage” attributed in the credits to Sokalska.
In the scene that worked well, Sokalska’s Jolene has Francine talk about herself—and Desloges’s performance actually creates the verisimilitude Boyer seems to be striving for in the “storytelling” scenes that don’t work.
As “Francine,” Desloges delivers a believable autobiographical sketch of a college student spontaneously speaking about herself in a monologue that has a few half-finished sentences and one or two expository side-bar lines. That “found footage” performance seems authentic in that it might well have been the actor Desloges talking about herself as much as it was the character “Francine” talking about herself.
One obviously scripted scene that exemplifies the usual flat dialog and lackluster delivery by the actors occurs when Michelle meets Emily at an outdoor café. We don’t see the exchange between Michelle and Emily that led to the meeting, but Michelle is shown texting with someone on her phone before driving off in her Oldsmobile Cutlass (circa 1969) on her way to the café.
Along with the poor presentation, the outdoor café scene doesn’t add anything substantial. Through the dialogue we are told that Emily doesn’t think she can go on the camping trip because . . . Peter!
The somewhat ambiguous implication is that Peter is a misogynistic control freak. It is also ambiguously implied that Michelle and Emily have some sort of history, which leads to Michelle voicing the clichéd concept of “I’ll always be here for you.”
However, while there are many flat scenes and bits of awkward dialogue in the film, there were also a few good performances that managed to transcend the predictable story. In addition to Desloges and Sokalska doing mostly commendable work as Francine and Jolene, both Alyssa Wypianski and Genevieve DeGraves gave very solid performances as Sally and Kim, respectively.
Many of the film’s actors are associated with The Acting Studio in Winnipeg, and they have had roles in small Canadian films and television series. The most appealing part of this film for me is the Manitoba setting, and I appreciate that Dark Forest is set in Manitoba and mostly uses Manitobans in the cast and crew.
The first “local color” image that piqued my interest occurred in the scene in which Sally and Kim meet up with Franky and Henry (Jesse Laing and Graham Silver) in a parking lot across the street from the Teulon Rockwood Centennial Centre.
Teulon is a small community about 60 miles north of Winnipeg with a population of about 1,200 people, and I assume all four characters live in Teulon. Thus, their murders in this story would have had a devastating emotional effect on the small community. The communal emotional effect would make a riveting story, and the conventional slasher-film murders could occur in flashbacks.
Similarly, the background stories of the three natives of suburban Winnipeg (Jolene, Michelle, and Francine) would also make for an interesting narrative that could be interwoven with Jolene’s “found footage” documentary. In fact, I suspect Boyer intended to use the cinéma vérité approach of “found footage” more than he ended up using in the film, as Jolene’s documentary was abruptly abandoned when her camera’s batteries died shortly after her group set up camp.
During one of the many times my mind wandered while watching Dark Forest, I imagined a different film in which Jolene made a cinéma vérité day-in-the-life documentary of Michelle, Francine, and their friends as they pass the time in suburban Winnipeg.
The use of actual locations in Teulon and what appears to be s 60-year-old neighborhood in suburban Winnipeg Manitoba gave me a brief sense of being in Manitoba, and I wish Boyer had focused more on telling a story of the distinct lives of his characters.
For instance, the one “verisimilitude” story in the film that intrigued me was when Michelle was pressed into talking about her date with “Bernie”—a filmmaker who works at a local Turbo gas station. We don’t get the details of Michelle’s supposedly boring date, but “Bernie” seems like an eccentric character who would have fit well into a film of “Manitoba Short Tales.”
Anyway, while I would prefer Dark Forest to have had more intellectual and emotional substance, I can also appreciate a sexually charged thriller that has startling imagery and effects. Unfortunately, Dark Forest is not particularly “charged” when it comes to the film’s sexual content nor particularly startling when it comes to its imagery and effects.
While there are several crass sexual references in the film—such as when Henry asks Sally if she received the penis pictures he texted her—there really isn’t much to offer voyeuristic viewers other than Jolene and Francine wearing bikinis while splashing around in a lake and dancing to the electronica hip-hop song “Zoom” by LightningCloud (in a scene in which the tattoos on Francine’s torso were usually on her left side but were occasionally on her right side).
Besides the numerous sexual innuendos and the two skimpy bikinis, the only other somewhat sexually charged scenes that I recall are when Sally and Henry engage in some heavy kissing, and when Kim stretches out in the passenger seat in Franky’s car—a scene in which we are treated to a close up of Kim’s crotch and the lucky phone that is resting there.
The “crotch and phone” shot then elicits an odd facial expression from Franky followed by him raising and lowering his eyebrows as if he’s doing a bad Grouch Marx impression.
Overall, Dark Forest is a mildly intriguing film that could have been better if Boyer had not been focused on trying to recreate the type of films John Carpenter and others made nearly 40 years earlier. Yet, there are hints that Boyer intended for his film to be more than it ended up being. In particular, there are the two inexplicable scenes of Emily walking alone through a light and colorful forest before suddenly seeing herself.
I assume both of the scenes are meant to be set in the same woods in which the murders took place. However, rather than late summer, these bright, colorful scenes occur in autumn at the height of the fall foliage—perhaps a month or so after the night Emily’s boyfriend brutally murdered eight people (seven in the woods and one earlier back at his house).
The film opens with Emily contemplating the lake with a melancholy and wistful look. She then, walks alone down a path, turns to see herself far down the way she just came, and is then startled as her “alternate self” suddenly appears only a few feet away.
That scene ends with Michelle opening her eyes as she awakens in her suburban Winnipeg home—as if the entire sequence of Emily meeting an alternative version of herself in the bright and colorful autumn woods had all been a dream Michelle had been having.
The second scene occurs after Peter knocked Michelle into unconsciousness with a tree branch to the back of her head. In the subsequent sequence, Emily walks through the bright and colorful autumn woods as she hears her name being called by a masculine voice. She then walks up to her “alternative self” saying “Emily” in that masculine voice.
The alternative Emily then turns to face Emily and says “Emily” in Peter’s voice—at which point Emily wakes up in her tent to the sound of Peter calling her name from just outside the tent. In this case, the sequence was obviously a dream—but it was clearly Emily’s dream rather than Michelle’s.
The obvious symbolism comes through as the “alternative Emily” in the dream was merged with Peter calling out “Emily” as he held Michelle, Jolene, and Francine hostage at knife point.
Boyer doesn’t provide any concrete answers as to the meaning of the two sequences of Emily meeting herself in the bright and colorful autumn woods. The scenes are left ambiguous and open for interpretation. I interpret them as indications that Boyer either had a longer script for his film or that all of his concepts didn’t make it into the script he wrote.
Both of the sequences seem to be dreams from Emily’s perspective, but the first seems to be Michelle’s dream and the second is Emily’s dream—which suggests some sort of subconscious connection between Michelle and Emily.
This possible subconscious connection between the two women might be related to the ambiguous history they share but that is never made explicit. Such a subconscious connection might also provide more depth to the awkward scene at the outdoor café that I discussed earlier.
It might also provide more depth to the emotionally-blank-but-somewhat-sinister expression on Emily’s blood-splattered face as she hugs Michelle at the end of the film.
The film’s closing shot could indicate that Emily has become the “alternative Emily” from the dream sequences. If Peter was possessed by some sort of demonic spirit, as possibly symbolized by the odd lighting that occurred in his living room, then perhaps that demonic spirit has now transferred to Emily—making her a new monster who will haunt the woods in a “Dark Forest 2” sequel that would take place in the fall a few months after the events of the first film.
While I found Dark Forest to be mildly intriguing on many levels, the execution of the film did not seem to match the concepts Boyer may have had in mind. Rather than a film with its own intellectual and emotional depth that could have transcended the slasher movie subgenre, Boyer ended up with a third-rate Halloween or Friday the 13th.
Dark Forest is available in HD on Amazon either free with Amazon Prime, for rent at $2.99, or for purchase at $9.99—prices for SD are a bit less.
 And I do mean to refer to Emily as the “object” of Peter’s abuse—along with the connotations that occur when a person is referred to as an object.
 Materia Socio-Medica, 2017 Jun; 29(2): 109–113.
 I agree with the women in the film; the male characters are assholes in nearly every single scene. However, none of the women came across as a bitch.