You have to admit, it is not every day that you sit down to watch a Finnish horror movie.
The setup is as exotic to an American viewer as its country of origin: in 1595, after a quarter-century war between Russia and Sweden, a five man party of Swedes and Russians are mapping the new border. Their work is almost finished, but they find their way blocked by a blank spot: a swamp no one has bothered to map before.
At the insistence of the leader of the Swedes, they press on. This man, Eerik (Ville Virtanen) is an aging soldier, whose career - especially his practice of counting the number of people he has killed - is slowly consuming him. The other Swede is his younger brother, Knut (Tommi Eronen), a man of learning who hopes to parlay the expedition into a position at a University.
Eerik is not making the transition into peacetime very well; and much as he wants to protect his younger brother from what he feels is the true, horrible nature of the world, he nonetheless makes Knut an unwitting accomplice in a terrible act at the beginning of the movie.
The reverberations of this act begin to track the party through the swamp, and at its center, the men are surprised to find a village, composed - curiously - of mainly old people, with only one child in evidence. Investigation shows that a group of monks built the village years before, but vanished mysteriously, and the current occupants, fleeing from the war, took up residence in the vacated buildings. They may be regretting that action – not a single child has been born since their arrival, and there is a white building on the edge of town that was there even before the monks arrived, a sauna of unknown origin, which no one will talk about.
One bit of dialogue is helpful, informing us that Finns bathe newborns and the recently dead alike in saunas to wash away sins (the box's subtitle is "Cleanse Your Sins" and the original Finnish title translates as Filth). A book left by the monks theorizes that the mysterious sauna may be a place where a person’s worst sins can be forgiven, which appeals to an increasingly guilt-ridden Knut. But whatever built that sauna is apparently still around, and it has begun to claim the occupants of the village one by one... and that includes the newly-arrived band of map-makers.
Sauna is an odd, almost unclassifiable movie. Director Antti-Jussi Annila has crafted what is definitely a horror film, but categorizing it as such is problematic, lumping it in with ham-fisted torture movies and seemingly endless remakes of 70s genre flicks. It employs some of the same techniques as its brethren, but it is also much more subtle; many of its chills take place in broad daylight, and very little is spelled out for the viewer. The unfolding plot requires some actual intellectual engagement from the viewer, which can make it even more devastating and horrific... if one is willing to engage in actual intellectual engagement.
Looking for something to compare it to, the best I can come up with was Brad Anderson’s 2001 exercise in psychological dread, Session 9. Sauna is one of those movies I find creep me out more after having seen it, than during the actual viewing.
So: for serious horror fans. Gorehounds need not apply.
The video transfer is spotless, though a very bleak, wintry color palette is going to limit your enjoyment of that. However, blacks as deep as the inside of your heart in a lightless cave seven miles down are particularly essential for this movie - they are there, and they are impenetrably solid.
The menu is a simple affair, with some video clips to the right of the options, which do not include spoilers. Good, solid work.
The IFC disc begins with previews for other horror movies (these guys know how to program well): The Belgian Left Bank (non-anamorphic), The Objective ("from the co-director of The Blair Witch Project!"), the French animation collection Fear(s) of the Dark (both anamorphic) and back to non-anamorphic for the Israeli/German/French drama Lemon Tree. Almost all of these are well-presented enough to warrant immediate addition to the Netflix queue.
Don't ask for much more, though. You will get a trailer for Sauna, which is a good thing, seeing as how discs for much more expensive, much more high-profile movies either forget or refuse to include that important part of a film's identity.
Dr. Freex, 12/13/2009