Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sauna (2008)

I’ve always loved period horror films, especially those that features rich history and superstitious folklore come to life. Period horror films are few and far between so, when I first heard about the Finnish film Sauna, set at the end of the 1500’s, I was excited to check it out. I will say the name threw me off a bit, which to me sounded more like a been-there, done-that J-horror than anything else. Yet, when I popped the DVD I was immediately taken in by the eerie atmosphere of Sauna as I let the film chill me to the bone.

Sauna is set in 1595 at the end of a war between Russian and Sweden. A new border between the nations is being mapped out in the far reaches of northern border by a group of Russian soldiers and two Swedish brothers, the hot-headed soldier Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and the more cerebral and sensitive Knut (Tommi Eronen).

One night, Eerik and Knut seek refuge in a local peasant’s home belonging to a father and daughter, but after discovering some religious iconography pointing to the father’s Russian loyalties, Eerik kills the father. Knut tries to protect the daughter from Eerik’s violence by locking her in a shed. As they rejoin the group of Russian soldiers and continue their trek across the dismally gray landscape, Knut begins to see the peasant girl following them. Eerik tells him to snap out of it and confesses he never let the girl out of the shed and left her to die.

As the eerie images of the peasant girl continue to haunt Knut, the group presses on until they come across a village in the middle of a misty swamp. The village is uncharted on the map, so the group decides to stay there to decide whether the village goes to the Russians or the Swedes. Yet, there is something very unsettling about the village and its inhabitants. The weirdness seems to stem from the half-submerged sauna that sits apart from the village. In folklore, saunas are supposed to cleanse you of your sins, but this particular sauna seems to force people to face their sins.

Sauna is a very deliberately paced and cerebral film that asks more questions than it answers. If you are looking for a ghost story filled with jump scares, look elsewhere, because Sauna is a much more of a thinking person’s horror film with many layers and subtexts. It raises many questions about guilt and redemption, salvation and repentance and at what cost can sins be cleansed. While these philosophical questions (and many more) are raised, the film never really seeks to answer them and instead leaves them up to the viewer to decide. The film is very ambiguous and it’s left open for interpretation by the viewer. Personally, I enjoyed the open-endedness of coming to your own conclusions that director Antti-Jussi Annila and writer Iiro Küttner offered the audience and how the consequences that the characters suffered really got you thinking.

I also loved the heavy, ominous atmosphere that Sauna offered. Throughout the entire film there is a palatable uneasiness that creeps up on you. Through the bleak cinematography (lots of gray skies, leafless trees, muddied water, dead grasses, etc.) and several eerie events like the appearance of the peasant girl to Knut as well as several dead villagers that scratched out their own eyes (reminding me of the Bible passage in Matthew 18:9 – “And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”) and the stark and sinister sauna itself, the film builds tension and unsettles the viewer.

It is this eerie atmosphere where Sauna succeeds the most. Some horror fans might not appreciate its deliberate pacing, but I thought the slowly building suspense was well worth it! And the film’s final frightening images sent shockwaves through my system! Director Antti-Jussi Annila and writer Iiro Küttner, along with the amazing cast, have truly delivered an artistic, emotional and grim horror film, and while it is not for everyone, those who appreciate more cerebral horror films will no doubt enjoy Sauna.

Buy it on Amazon!

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