Cast: Ville Virtanen, Tommi Eronen, Viktor Klimenko, Sonja Petäjäjärvi
The title suggests an 80s sex romp from Golan/Globus era, but this mannered, metaphysical nailbiter is a rare Finnish entry into horror cinema, mindful of visceral, American-styled shocks ala Saw, but intriguingly rooted in that country's culture of sauna, in which the ubiquitious structures were regarded not only as bathhouses but also sacred structures where children were born, bodies of the dead were washed, diseases cured, and supernatural beings visited. It's a demanding but rewarding experience to patient horror mavens who've been attending sequels and remakes out of resigned duty (hoping for periodic highlights like Cloverfield and The Strangers), and a parable of the sacred and the profane, drenched with the paranoia of Poe and the Lutheran leitmotifs of Bergman.
It's the year 1595, at the end of a twenty-five year war between Sweden and Russia. New borders are literally being drawn up as joint teams of Finns and Russians navigate the endless forests and marshes to establish bounderies mutually satisfying. A pair of Finnish brothers, Eerik and Knut Spore, are dispatched by their King to rendevous with a team of Russian soldiers. Eerik, the oldest, is a decorated Cavalry commander and patriot who has spent much of his life fighting (and loathing) the Russians, whereas Knut is a cartographer and intellectual with a position waiting at a university in Sweden once their tasks are done.
During a stay at a village, Eerik kills a man whom he suspects of paganism and Russian sympathies. Knut protects the man's young daughter from his hotheaded brother's temper by locking her way in a root cellar, oppressing his own lustful urges. The brothers flee before the other villagers notice, leaving the girl locked up.
Exploring the ravaged northern landscape with the two Russian soldiers and their commander, the brothers come upon a mysterious, uncharted village surrounded by a large swamp, where the denizens seem to be neither Swedish nor Russian. Guilt-ridden Knut is drawn to the ominous stone sauna at the village's centre, which is both feared and respected by the townsfolk as a place of power. Knut learns that no children have been born in years, the old do not die...
While definitely violent and less-than-rose-coloured in its view of humankind, Sauna doesn't suffer from the suffocating nihilism of recent French efforts like Frontieres or Martyrs, or Rob Zombie's Sid Haig vehicles.
The film's titular object is an ominous white, marble structure central to the village that rises out of a shallow marsh, the reflection of its dark doorway creating a reverse silhouette that probably-none-too-coincidentally suggests the monolith of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I'd not seen Annnila's debut feature, the acclaimed Jadesoturi (The Jade Warrior) but after Sauna it definitely shoots to the top of my Netflix queue (actually, I don't subscribe to Netflix and am a terrible renter. I'll probably just buy it when I happen upon a copy). The widescreen imagery is evocative and immersive--reminiscent (in a good way!) of Guillermo Del Toro's chiaroscuro palette--and the pacing more assured and confident than one would expect from a sophomore effort.
©2008 Robert J. Lewis