Cult Corner: The Forest of the Lost Souls (2018) - Reviewed

The titular location in the black and white, Portuguese drama The Forest of the Lost Souls (2018) is a place people go to commit suicide. A young woman and an older man both go there on the same day and end up stumbling across each other. That is the simple setup for this dark, atmospheric film that holds some impressive tension in its compelling first half before making a slight turn toward thriller territory in a far more conventional, and less interesting, second half.

The key thing that makes The Forest of the Lost Souls work for as long as it does is its central location. The forest is strangely ominous with its gnarled trees and broken paths. It is unnerving not because it seems like something bad will happen to someone who goes there, but because it seems like a place people go only after something bad has already happened. This area keeps secrets. It is quiet, peaceful and very, very sad. The sky and water are shot to appear huge, as though the forest takes up all available space on land. It is the perfect spot to go to disappear.

This looks like an ideal location for a horror film, but this is not exactly that kind of movie. Writer/director/producer José Pedro Lopes keeps his story at the level of a creepy character study much of the way. The audience can feel something is wrong and the tone is quite successful up until he reveals what that is. At that point, I had a lot of questions Lopes apparently felt were unnecessary to answer. Even though most of it is not satisfyingly paid off, that first section, with Carolina and Ricardo wandering through the dense forest, is really fascinating.

In part, it is so captivating due to the way Lopes hints at who these people are and their reasons for coming there without using speeches or flashbacks. For the purposes of his film, all we need to know is they are serious enough about ending their lives to have made.

Lopes and his actors certainly understand who these characters are. Jorge Mota is hopeless, but fatherly, as Ricardo. Does he have it in him to abandon his family? Meanwhile, Daniela Love’s sardonic Carolina is more pragmatic. She gives the impression of being much better prepared to kill herself. They do not have a lot of depth, but their dialogue is unique enough (his, mournful; hers, dryly amused) to make them stand out as individuals.

The Forest of the Lost Souls is an intriguing concept with a great start. Unfortunately, it loses its way as it goes on. Though that does not negate the good things about it. I am only disappointed because José Pedro Lopes subverts expectations so well initially. His writing is smart and subtle and the cinematography by Francisco Lobo has an eerie beauty. The entire film is skillfully made and worth checking out for fans of dark thrillers, even if it fails to live up to its potential.

--Ben Pivos