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Sauna | DVD Review

While the plot is slow and deliberate in its pacing, the performances of the leads and the payoff at the end make the close attention you have to pay writer Iiro Kuttner’s storyline well worth it.

There isn’t a lot of blood and gore and cheap scares in Sauna, but that’s not to say that this Finnish import from director AJ Annila (Jade Warrior) about sin and the burden of guilt shouldn’t be considered a horror film. After all, what’s more horrifying than the idea of carrying immense guilt for many, many years?

The year is 1595, at the tail end of a 25-year war between the Swedes and the Russians. Grizzled war veteran Eerik (Ville Virtanen, Stormheart) and his cartographer brother Knut (Tommi Eronen, Jade Warrior), himself somewhat of a pacifist, are part of a group of Swedish and Russian soldiers on a border-defining expedition. Before meeting up with the Russians, the brothers had left a young girl to die in a covered pit after Eerik had savagely murdered her father. Knut begins to see visions of the girl as the team goes about their business, and every time he sees her she’s just a little bit closer and more menacing. The group eventualy comes to a mysterious settlement near an odd ancient sauna smack dab in the middle of a swamp. Can the sauna cleanse the brothers’ sins and absolve their guilt? (At this point, it helps if the viewer knows a little bit about European history and Finnish mythology, especially the belief that saunas offer redemption to sinners…there, now you know). While the plot is slow and deliberate in its pacing, the performances of the leads and the payoff at the end make the close attention you have to pay writer Iiro Küttner’s (Five Sunrises to Go) storyline well worth it.

Sauna is a beautifully shot film, full of stunning visuals and misty swamp vistas. The muted color palette used by Annila, with lots of gray and dark hues, sets the dour tone of the film. It must be mentioned again that this is no Hollywood horror film, where cheap thrills are a dime a dozen and envelope-pushing is done just to see who can push it the farthest. Those films have their place, but Annila plays it low key, delivering a final product dripping with atmosphere and tension, along with a few well-placed visual shocks that add to rather than take away from the film as a whole. Sauna is one of those films that viewers tend to appreciate after mulling it over a bit; as the credits roll, you might be wondering what it is you just saw, but the longer you dwell on it afterward, the more things come into focus and the more you appreciate it.

Apart from the trailer, there are no special features on this DVD release from IFC Films/MPI Home Video. The film itself, however, is presented in crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and in an excellent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that really shows off the cinematography, especially on a large screen television. Never has a damp and misty swamp looked so good.

Sauna has been favorably compared to the work of Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), and while that may be stretching a bit, it’s not far off. Scandinavian horror films are enjoying a mini-boon, with offerings that cover many sub-genres: Let The Right One In may be the best vampire film ever, Cold Prey is one of the better slasher pics of the past few years, and Dead Snow resurrects the Nazi Zombie micro-genre to riotous effect. Sauna can stand proudly next to them as a thinking person’s horror film. Definitely worth a rental.

Movie rating – 3

Disc Rating – 2

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