I don’t remember where I first read about Sauna, but I immediately knew I had to see it. After all, it combines two of my favorite genres: dark fantasy and surreal body horror. Of course, mixing flavors is always a risky venture: you could end up with something as inspired as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup—or as unappetizing as a scoop of ice cream on top of a slice of pizza.
Thankfully, Sauna is one delicious concoction, best summed up as The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring as reimagined by Lynch or Cronenberg. That said, director Antti-Jussi Annila is less interested in assaulting the viewer with stomach-turning imagery (though there’s enough black pus oozing from empty eye sockets to satisfy most gorehounds) than in psychologically tormenting his characters. The protagonist is an aging Swedish soldier on an expedition to redistribute land following the war with Russia, and his haunting journey explores themes of mortality (his failing eyesight is a constant reminder that his days are numbered), sin (he frequently mentions that he has at least seventy-three deaths on his conscience), and redemption. The titular sauna, where our intrepid explorers confront the darkness in their own souls, is something straight out of Lovecraft’s nightmares: an unnervingly artificial structure that emerges from the muddy waters of a swamp, its interior simultaneously infinitely vast and suffocatingly claustrophobic.
Like Rashomon, Onibaba, and The Witch, Sauna makes the most of its limited budget by keeping its scale relatively small and manageable, eschewing sprawling battles and elaborate studio sets in favor of quiet philosophical conversations in cramped log cabins and barren fields; were it not for the costumes and props, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the setting was some post-apocalyptic wasteland. And while the pace occasionally slows to a crawl and a few plot beats feel overly enigmatic or ambiguous, the film’s genuinely inventive visuals (particularly those that accompany the opening text crawl, in which a trickle of blood marks the heroes’ trail along a map), as well as its oppressive mood and atmosphere, more than make up for such minor shortcomings. I’m glad I tracked this one down; I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it on many rainy nights to come.
[Originally written May 22, 2017.]