** Out of ****
Directed by: AJ Annila
Starring: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, and Viktor Klimenko
Released: October 24, 2008
Country: Finland / Czech Republic
Runtime: 85 minutes
Reviewed by: Philip Hogan
After years of fighting between Russia and Sweden, the scene is quite bare. The year is 1595, and representatives from both countries are traveling through what is now Finland, attempting to establish a border between the once warring lands. The viewer is explained this historical context before the film even begins, through texts over a scrolled map, charted in blood. The information given merely provides the historical premise for the film, but gives no indication of the supernatural elements to come. After this introduction, we are shown an extreme close-up of rushing river water, soon to be bleached red with blood. A satchel washes along and is collected by a peasant, who discovers inside it maps of the region. The rest of the film follows in flashback.
The two central characters of the film are the Swedish brothers Eerik (played by Ville Virtanen) and Knut (played by Tommi Eronen), who represent their country in this border operation. Eerik, who occasionally speaks dialogue that seems more fitting for a character of the twentieth century, is the warrior brother whose soul has turned bloody after fighting. He brags of the seventy three victims he has slayed during the war, almost taking pride in his lack of remorse. Knut is the more bookish of the two, inexperienced in killing and still capable of seeing the good in the world. Due to an accidental death caused by both brothers early in the film, Knut begins to see ghostly apparitions following them on their journey. Things get more complicated when they come across a mysterious village on the edge of a swamp whose inhabitants seem to know more than they are saying. In the middle of the swamp lies the title sauna, an imposing concrete structure that looms over the men in menacing silence, though not serving much else of a purpose.
If Sauna, directed by AJ Annila, has anything going for it, it is the bleak and barren landscapes that the characters are constantly walking through; frostbitten grasslands to dark woods. The atmosphere established in these scenes is very frightening, though it is occasionally spoiled when Annila feels the need to use slow motion and ambient music to drive the point across. Still, because this is Scandinavia, the skies are almost always overcast, creating a chilling mood and sense of foreboding that is too often absent in modern American horror films.
Though while the aura of the film stays intact, the story (and some choppy editing) seems to go in too many different directions that not much seems to make sense. It can be good when films explain very little and leave things open to the audience, but Sauna, surrounded by ideas of redemption, revenge, and spirituality, seems to get lost in its own logic. It’s as if the screenwriter had laid the groundwork for some interesting concepts, but just gave up and decided to pull out the horror clichés in the final act. The inclusion of a child character that the brothers reluctantly befriend in the village is a poor attempt at emotional manipulation, and seems to only be included to add emotional weight to the finale, which comes out of nowhere and seems rather pointless.
After all is said and done in Annila’s Sauna, not much is explained. Some films are purposefully abstract and call attention to their lack of explanation, and are brilliant in doing so. Sauna goes to great lengths to provide the historical context in which it is set, only to backfire on its own horror mythology. The atmosphere and mood, and even some of the camera work, are certainly commendable, boasting production values and genuine creepiness that surpass most films in the horror genre today. Still, the direction the story goes toward in the final moments comes off as a mere stunt to provide a payoff for the people who rented this hoping to experience a gore-fest.