Euro-horror is doing good business lately. France, Great-Britain and Spain are all battling on the front lines, but smaller countries like Belgium are producing splendid genre works too. Enter Finland, a somewhat cinematic void for me, showing their muscles with Sauna. A horror film that fairs well with its European peers but also succeeds in giving Finnish cinema a face, although a grim one.
The film's premise is kept rather vague and for people not living close to Finland or familiar with its history the film might take a flying start. Two teams, one Finnish and one Russian, are sent out to draft a new border after a long-raging war. They cross the barren lands in order to fight a more civilized war in trying to decide who gets what. Even though the film is set a good 400 years back in history, it could've well been just 50 years ago. Not that the film looks too modern for its setting, it's just that the characters are never really surrounded by recognizable cultural references. Safe from a pair of glasses and the clothing, it's all swamp and unforgiving nature that is served to the audience.
The two teams don't get along very well, but the one really stirring things up is Erik, a long-life warrior who has trouble adjusting to the new-found peace. Even though he wears glasses to fake a distinguished look, he is a true barbarian, murdering and abusing everyone coming across his way. The only one he seems to care for is his little brother, who was sheltered from the war as college student. The first half of the film is spent drawing out the relationships between the different characters, giving the audience some time to adjust to the happenings in the film. From the moment they arrive in an unlisted village in the middle of a swamp, the core plot and the titular Sauna make their entrance.
Sauna has a couple of things going for it. First of all there is the performance of Ville Virtanen, portraying the Erik character as someone that is simply terrifying. As simple as those glasses may be, they make him out as someone with a certain sense of civilization while in reality he is as bad as they come by. His performance is hard as nails and unsettling. The rest of the casts plays along nicely, although none of them really make a big impression.
Visually the film is very consistent. Grey, dark colors and rough landscapes make up most of the visual scenery. No bright colors are seen, even the blood in the film is dark red, almost black. The camera work is solid too and helps in setting the atmosphere nicely. But even though it gives the film plenty of flair, there's never that little extra to make the film rise above its rivals. The soundtrack too is extremely fitting, with some very nifty sound deformations and good, supporting music. It has an ambient-like quality only furthering the grim and dark atmosphere of the film.
As the film progresses the story is slowly revealed an even though the premise is intriguing, you'll be left guessing at least for a little on how it all fits together. The ending is somewhat vague and even though impressive, won't bring you any clear answers. Looking back at the film, it has a lot of parallels with Vinyan (even small details - just think of the shots of water becoming blood-soaked), though Sauna is a much more subdued film, without any real climaxes or cinematic bursts. Depending on what you like more, you might prefer this one over Vinyan which has more curves compared to the straight line that is this film.
Nonetheless, Sauna is an impressive experience, solid in just about every department. Extremely strong lead, nice and fitting visuals, great soundtrack and intriguing storyline. And if you won't miss the climaxes, this will be exactly your thing. A recommendation for all fans of European horror out there. Just don't be expecting guts and gore, Sauna plays at atmosphere, grit and travels through the darker parts of the human mind.