I’m a big horror fan and by that I mean I like scary films: films that are sometimes referred to as psychological horror – as if there is some distinction. Surely all horror is psychological? The word horror now refers to a broad genre of films – gory films, monster films, shocking films as well as scary films, but for me if it isn’t genuinely scary then it’s not a real horror. If a rubber monster isn’t actually horrifying then it’s not a horror movie. Plenty of films claim to be scary but most depend on making you jump with cheap tricks – again this is not horror, this is just the same as shouting boo at someone. And then there are gory films or films that purely set out to shock – that’s often not really horrifying, that’s just gross. After the excellent Let The Right One In, Scandinavian horror Sauna had a lot to live up to. It’s not quite as good, but it is still totally worth watching, and joins the likes of A Tale of Two Sisters, Rec and Ringu in my favourite horror film collection.
The title is pretty strange for someone who basically equates saunas with leisure centers, but apparently in Finnish history a sauna was a place where children were born and the dead were prepared for burial, kind of a spiritual place. An alternative title for the film was supposedly ‘Filth’ which would have been a bit better for an international audience. The sauna in this film has nothing to do with leisure centers – it looks more like a bomb shelter than anything else, and is in the middle of a murky swamp. Admittedly some leisure centers are probably a bit like that as well.
The film is set in 1596 on the border between Finland and Russia following a 25 year long war, and it’s quite reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth in that it depicts soldiers from an era and location I knew absolutely nothing about – 1596? As far as I am concerned no history occurred then, it was just a blank bit of time in-between events. It’s really fascinating to see a period you haven’t seen before on film: we’ve all seen World War II in a hundred different films, but there is so much more history in the world that would make for great films. Possibly producers would assume that no-one outside of Finland would want to see a film from this period, but I think that is a mistake. The soldiers in the film are trying to draw up new borders between Russia and Finland when they come to an area that doesn’t seem to fit with their maps. As tensions grow among the soldiers it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and sins from their past are going to come back to haunt them. The film quickly becomes an allegorical journey into personal hells.
This has much more in common with Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Magarita than a Steven King horror, it’s unsettling in quite an abstract way rather than a conventional way: there are no tentacles from the mist or rubber monster suits here, nor are there cheap scares or buckets of gore – not that there is anything wrong with those things, but they just are not always needed. There is a pervasive sense of unease and the unfamiliar period and setting makes for fascinating viewing, the film is occasionally reminiscent of Black Death starring Sean Bean – another film about a group of historical types finding a village where not everything is as it seems. Perhaps there are elements of The Wicker Man in both films as well, though they are certainly very different. The horror is never especially intense, but like Let The Right One In or A Tale of Two Sisters it is well crafted and compelling, and it has a couple of memorably frightening scenes. I love this type of film and recommend it, as well as the others I’ve mentioned here that I will undoubtedly write more about soon.