You’d be hard pressed to the point of negligent to not draw parallels between José Pedro Lopes’ The Forest of Lost Souls (A Floresta das Almas Perdidas) and one of the most astonishing horror films of 2016, Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. Most immediately, both are (predominantly) spoken in Portuguese: while Lopes’ film was made in Portugal, Pesce’s was an American film that featured only the barest amount of English language dialogue. Both films follow families torn apart by unexpected deaths, only to find themselves descending further into the abyss when troubled young women hit their stride and decide to adhere to their commitment to violence more diligently. Perhaps most obviously, both The Forest of Lost Souls and The Eyes of My Mother are shot in black-and-white, their stories manifesting on screen through luscious, often high contrast photography that consciously heralds their art-horror heritage.
In the case of The Forest of Lost Souls, it’s almost too consciously. Less an orthodox subgenre, perhaps, and more of an aesthetic and tonal mode, the great classics of art-horror — Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960), Repulsion (Roman Polanksi, 1965), Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968) and Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) — are all black-and-white, in many instances due to budgetary concerns as much as anything else. The Eyes of My Mother certainly seemed aware of this heritage, but it felt less cynically deployed there and more a key aspect of a complex, well thought out stylistic strategy. In contrast, while there are certainly moments of real cinematic poetry in The Forest of Lost Souls, they are fleeting and disjointed, stumbled upon more by accident than design. As exquisite as Francisco Lobo’s cinematography is in the latter is, it’s difficult to not interpret the decision to present the film in black-and-white as a gravitas-providing gimmick rather than anything more conceptually substantial.
Despite the provocation of the near-overwhelming formal, narrative and thematic similarities, in defence of The Forest of Lost Souls few films could be expected to achieve what The Eyes of My Mother did. When casting a quick eye over other horror in-laws, The Forest of Lost Souls punches well above its weight. The film follows an older man (Ricardo, played by Jorge Mota) and a young woman called Carolina (Daniela Love) who happen across each other in the eponymous woodland in an area known to attract people wishing to kill themselves. The opening segment of the film that documents their encounter is by far the film’s most original and memorable component, and the energy generated between Mota and Love in these scenes as they discuss the methods and ethics of why they are there is almost intoxicating. Mota’s Ricardo looks like an amalgam of Kenneth “Windom Earle” Welsh, Wes Craven and Bela Tarr, while Love’s Carolina seems consciously played to imply that she is the inescapable, extreme embodiment of the perversity of late capitalism itself.
While the film does not maintain the impressive momentum of its premise and collapses broadly to some degree into (frankly unexpected) pedestrian slasher terrain, the centrality of this “forest of lost souls” recalls another horror film from 2016, Jason Zada’s The Forest, starring Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney. That film, as the title suggests, also hinges around another wilderness region, Japan’s real-life Aokigahara (the so-called “Suicide Forest” or “Sea of Trees” on Mount Fuji.) With roughly 105 suicides reported in this area each year, the notoriety of Aokigahara stems in large part from the 1960 novel Black Sea of Trees (Kuroi Jukai) by iconic Japanese crime writer Seichō Matsumoto. The Forest is on the surface a wholly functional (although far from radical) genre film, but the inescapable fact that it employs a real place renowned as a site for real death and turns it into nothing more than an exoticised, non-Western backdrop for some dumb American tourists to play out their white family psychodramas is as offensive and as clumsily executed as it sounds.
The Forest of Lost Souls avoids this problem by simply fictionalising the concept, changing the cultural and geographic context and attempting to do something fresh with it. Clocking in at just 70 minutes, when The Forest of Lost Souls gets it right, it excels: the entire encounter between Ricardo and Carolina stretched to a feature would have been an incredible movie, although admittedly a challenging one for a feature debut. And there are other moments that indicate Lopes is an impressive talent, such as a breathtaking tracking shot as Carolina walks towards the stage at a music festival near the film’s conclusion. There are glimpses of something really extraordinary under the surface, even if there is a lot of clutter to sift through to get to these more magical moments. The Forest of Lost Souls ultimately recalls the iconic observation by Jeffrey Jones’s Emperor Joseph II in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus: like Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”, The Forest of Lost Souls simply feels like “there are too many notes.”