APRIL 16, 2010
I recently did a trivia contest on Twitter, and the winner was Toni, who lives in Finland and thus asked me to just review Sauna in lieu of (quite expensively) sending him a DVD. Also, if I DID mail him something it would probably still be sitting in the cargo plane at LAX or whatever due to the Icelandic volcano, since this was the week I actually made a trip to the post office (a very rare occasion) and would have sent it then. So instead, I got to watch a very beautifully shot and very baffling movie, and he isn't being denied his prize due to ash. Everyone wins!
Sauna is not a film for the average horror fan. In fact, there are really only like 2-3 isolated moments of horror in the entire movie. I think fans of movies like Dead Birds will really dig it though - both films are very atmospheric and "slow", punctuated with occasional moments of "WTF??" horror that may not make complete sense on a first viewing (and in my case, a second). And it should certainly win over fans of originality - I defy you to name a single other horror film where the primary characters are mapmakers (let alone mapmakers in 16th century Sweden/Russia), with the plot largely revolving around a patch of unclaimed swampland that houses a mysterious sauna, one where someone can be truly cleansed of their sins.
A word of advice to any potential viewers - do NOT take your eyes off the subtitles for even a single moment. Part of the reason that I had to watch it again is because some of the stuff that WAS explained was a bit confusing to me, such as the fact that the "girl" in a pivotal plot scene early on was left to die by the more violent brother. It's somewhat of a difficult movie to get a handle on already due to certain period concepts not being common knowledge (at least to me - it seems understanding a bit about the war would help at least get a sense of where the characters had gone through), it will be even doubly so if you are watching it without your full attention and missing even a line or two of crucial dialogue.
And you might be tempted to ignore the subs just because it's such a gorgeous film. Not in the "oh I'd like to visit this country due to how pretty it looks" way, though - on the contrary, it makes 16th century Europe look even less desirable than I had imagined - just woods and shacks and swamps. But it's wonderful to look at all the same, particularly near the end during a snowfall that seems to be in slo-motion. I could see myself buying the film on blu-ray and watching certain scenes on mute just to enjoy the cinematography by Henri Blomberg.
On the other hand, I could also just listen to the score by Panu Aaltio on a loop for hours. It's very sparingly used in the film, but it's a fantastic, sad score, and I in fact DID loop the end credits a few times just to enjoy the piece. This truly is the rare film that I like more for technical reasons than creative ones.
And that is not just because I didn't understand the final scene (is the kid someone's re-incarnate?). It just seems like there are some missing chunks in the narrative at times. For example the Russian map-team is written out very quickly, as if there was a crucial scene leading up to the final one that wasn't present. Likewise, the sauna itself is under-used. I understand the point of saving its full reveal for the finale, but a few flashes of what was happening to the characters who entered it prior to that point would have been nice. The younger brother is also written out of the movie very abruptly, which works as a shock but not as a satisfying denouement for his character. Again, this is sort of like Dead Birds, where you have this long buildup and then a very quick climax (that the movie was 10 minutes shorter than promised on the Netflix label didn't help - I was EXPECTING another ten min and then the credits began to roll).
Ultimately though, it's the type of movie I started HMAD for - one where people can talk about it (and I like it! Unlike Deadline, which I get different theories on every other day but since I haven't thought about the movie since I watched it I can barely even put said theories into context). What do you guys think about the ending? Was the town really populated with the ghosts of the folks that Erik killed? Or was he just projecting that out of guilt? And why is that kid running around like a vampire at the end? I have to rely on you guys, since the DVD's only extra is the trailer (which has its own menu - wouldn't it be easier to just put "Trailer" on the main menu? We have to double the number of clicks!), despite a making of being available on other regions' release of the film.
So please watch the movie and answer my questions. I'll be over here listening to the score.
What say you?
P.S. I think this is my first Finnish horror movie!