Review: Sauna

Finland is not known for a great number of things, but their sauna – hot steam baths – is an international icon and therefore not surprisingly the theme of the historical horror film, Sauna.

Set in the year 1595 on the soon-to-be border between Russia and Finland, a group of lower government officials are mapping the actual border between the two countries. At one point they reach a huge swamp where a small village is situated in the middle. A mystical building, which turns out to be an ancient sauna built by monks, triggers visions and fears but also opportunity.

While the Finnish sauna could have been used for any kind of violence, murder, mayhem and creative deaths, in Sauna the role of the steam bath is downplayed to such an extent that it plays a secondary role. Do not get stuck in the movie’s title; this is not at all a film about people being suffocated by old smoke ovens, but about bad memories, inner fears and the unsecure future. Typically for a Nordic genre movie, the story also involves parts of Finland’s actual history, and from the politically correct department, it also raises questions about the conditions of gay men a few centuries ago. These issues tend to take focus more than traditional horror – in this case, supernatural beings – but I can imagine that being gay in the 1500s in gritty Finland was a horror in itself. Sauna manages to blend personal drama, historical grit and inner demons in an interesting way, but this also means that the entertainment value for horror fans is reduced. Example; the dialoge is sometimes artistic and strange, which suits a theatre play, but perhaps not government servants who find an isolated swamp village 400 years ago.

Visually, the film is almost monochrome and dark, which gives a very good idea of the dirt and filth and poverty that dominated Finland back then. Costumes and sets and make-up are very well made, and the overall atmosphere of the area and the time is perceived to be very authentic in a quality European way. This is the main reason to see the movie, as the story itself unfolds a bit slow and never reaches the climax one is led to believe is near. The film is character driven to such an extent that the physical story is left behind, which is a pity. Once at the village, so many opportunities are lost in favour of straight drama that has nothing to do with saunas, dirt or Finland except in a very symbolic way.

The horror elements feel a bit forced, and spread thin in the background, but Sauna (also known as Filth and Evil Rising) is still worth watching for its visuals and locations, and for being an interesting period drama.

Directed by Antti-Jussi Annila.

Rated 6 of 10.

Finland, 2008.