I have to admit, I am positively excited how good this was. When thinking of Finland, one does not usually think it’s a country that produces good horror movies, but this was pretty damn spooky. Have to wonder about the multiple different titles it goes by though. I know Sauna isn’t really that great of a title for a horror movie, doesn’t really have much flair,but really, the best you could come up to replace it with was something as generic as Filth or as clichéd as Evil Rising? If anything, the tagline Cleanse your sins alone has a better sound to it, and could with little work sound both ominous and be fairly accurate to the plot.
One of the more compelling aspects of the movie is the story taking place in the late 16th century. You don’t very often get period pictures set so far back in time, and the aftermath period of the Russo-Swedish War does lend itself very well to horror and the dark subject matter. The acting is also very top notch, the easy going Semenski plays a good foil against the jumpy and aggressive Eerik, and apart from the two Russian underlings following and assisting Semenski, who basically are there to be familiar faces to be used as cannon fodder, everyone feels very well rounded and multifaceted. The village in the center of the swamp felt a lot like an allegory for Hell/Purgatory, what with the population number totaling the exactly same amount as Eerik’s own body count as a soldier. For a minute there I even thought the question of whether or not the village was real or just something the ghost had conjured up was going to be left entirely ambiguous, but then they went and to a degree, explained it. Another thing I especially liked was the big inversion in the end. Despite building Eerik to be this hotheaded, spiteful soldier with no remorse and a murderous streak to him, he ends up being the closest thing to a hero the movie has due to willingly sacrificing himself to give the child a chance to escape from the haunted village, while his brother Knut gets implied to be a bit less respectable than what he originally seems. It gave the movie some unexpected depth.
It’s a bit of a shame they didn’t explore the connotations of the mysterious sauna and the mystery of the village even further and try to make the movie be more surrealistic, instead of the traditional supernatural horror direction. I would have liked it to have kept everything more grounded and symbolic, with emphasis on the psychological aspects of guilt and kept it vague what was really happening, but I guess you can’t have everything and it could have proven to be too hard to get a satisfying ending if it had gone for a more art house feel from the start.