TL;DR: Great ideas & high production values are abound in Haunted Forest, but the sloppy execution renders it fruitless.
Haunted Forest has all the trappings of an excellent horror movie. Aris (Raymart Santiago) is a cop who is reassigned to his hometown, bringing his only daughter Nica (Jane Oineza) with him at his sister’s home. Both of them have a rocky relationship ever since Aris’ wife died, with Nica acting out or ignoring his demands. Aris helps out his friend & chief of police Nardo (Joey Marquez) in investigating a series of chilling murders inflicted on women, supposedly caused by a sitsit, an aswang-like creature lurking in the forest. When Nica finally opens up to her cousin & her friends, she joins their outing in a nearby river; including a cute boy named RJ (Jameson Blake) who clearly likes her. After the trip, she starts acting irrationally & prone to fainting. Soon she finds herself slowly reeled in by the sitsit and her friends & family will do everything they can to save her.
Unfortunately, the whole movie is completely dull. There’s a drought of scares due to its sloppy staging & generic nature, especially once it descends into the typical third act confrontation that’s neither thrilling nor fun. This extends to the whole film, where each scene feels perfunctory, shallow & oddly paced. There are also unfortunate scenes involving the village’s mentally disabled local named Voltron – who is the only witness to the murders – where Aris & Nardo beat him up senselessly for comic relief, that stands out for being hateful & ill-suited to the movie.
But glimmers of what could’ve been can be seen throughout the movie. Instead of becoming a metaphor for every father’s nightmare for their daughter taken to its extremes – like the Taken series – it wisely focuses on the father-daughter bond at its core, trying their best to rebuild what was lost after a horrible tragedy. It’s easier to root for these characters when it’s grounded in something painful; compared to Regal Films’ previous Haunted Mansion, where every character is either bland or despicable that you start rooting for their deaths. Raymart Santiago & Jane Oineza both shine in these roles as they reconnect after failing to communicate for so long. The rest of the cast elevate what could’ve been staler material in the wrong hands. Joey Marquez is doing his “gruff dad” shtick he’s been doing recently & it works. Jameson Blake sells his growing relationship with Nica as RJ thanks to their undeniable chemistry. Even if Maris Racal & Jon Lucas aren’t given much to do, they still enliven the film with their presence. There are also two standout sequences – Nica’s violent freakout & its aftermath in her bedroom – for managing to be creepy, but it’s pretty much downhill afterwards.
That’s not even mentioning the movie’s polished production values, so even when the movie isn’t working at all, at least it:s beautiful to look at. Rommel Sales’ cinematography creates eerie images in the dark. Ericson Navaro’s production design deserve praise for adding a foreboding atmosphere, like the creepy tableaus the victims end up in after their deaths. The CG special effects are also well done, but it distracts from the movie’s overall vibe.
Despite all this, it never rises above its middling quality. There are seeds of a better horror movie surrounding the movie, but it is in dire need of a more assured hand to pull it off. What we have instead is half-baked movie that never reached its full potential.