From the original title Sauna, you might be forgiven for thinking this is either a) a comically erotic horror film made in the 1980s, with all number of horror stereotypes (jock, nerd, breasty girl – yup, I think that covers it) possibly set in a gym or b) a gritty modern horror film addressing the terrors of overheating in a sauna à la the pain of being buried in sand as experienced in Captivity; of being drowned by sweat and scorched by steam. Thankfully, neither of these options accurately meet this gothic and atmospheric Finnish film. Indeed, it seems that the UK-release alternative title – Rising Evil – is calculated to address the possible genre confusion that Sauna might present to a non-Scandinavian audience.
Set in a distant and barbaric past, with the backdrop of a long-fought Russian / Swedish conflict, Evil Rising is concerned with the journey of boundary markers into the wild north. The main characters are brothers: Knut (Tommi Eronen) a cartographer and the other, Eerik (Ville Virtanen) a soldier who has many deaths on his conscience. The narrative is elliptical and non-linear, beginning at the end of the story, and later featuring frequent flashbacks to the sequence where we are introduced to the brothers as they attack and pillage a family, leaving a girl locked in an underground cellar; an event which becomes pivotal to their subsequent fates. The weight of the past, and particularly that on the still unstable post-war present the characters find themselves in, is central to this film. Eerik in particular, but Knut too in his relationship with his brother and his own place in the conflict, is forced to confront the place in which his brutal past actions place him spiritually and emotionally in this apparent peacetime. These issues have already been suggested when they, accompanied by a small envoy of Russian soldiers – the mix of nationalities an attempt to ensure fairness in boundary marking – arrive at a small Finnish village in the middle of a swamp. As you might expect, it is when they arrive at this settlement, which is not only an unexpected addition to their map, but is also home to a group of people entirely cut off from the outside world (to the extent that it is an almost entirely aging population) with seemingly strange ways of doing things, that the main horror of the film kicks in.
The village includes an ominous building rising out of the swamp waters, which just happens to be the sauna of the title. In this respect, I think there is something of the film’s power that is lost in translation. For while the village sauna is an undeniably sinister space – the blankness of the modernist structure and its eerie and remote location in the water is visually arresting – its significance to a non-Finnish audience, where the sauna is not a luxury experience, but rather a necessary one that is central to national identity, is difficult to satisfyingly comprehend. On the other hand, the notion of cleansing and rebirth, in spiritual and national contexts is made plain by the film, and the post-war conscience, albeit framed in a distant past, is an interesting subject for any modern horror, regardless of its country of origin.
Cultural translations aside, the film is gruesome and creepy enough to satisfy any horror audience, while also mindful of its aesthetic impact more generally. The colour palate of the film is stark, fitting to the bleak landscape and weather conditions, and also the emotional tone of the relationships of the film; between the brothers, between them and their Russian companions and between their party and the village they come to. It also reminded me of the horror films directed by Hideo Nakata – Ring (1998), but more Dark Water (2002) – with inky blacks, damp stains and snow. Blood is not the vivid red of Giallo or Corman, but rather the darkened maroon of recent European horror; the look of the film also reminded me of the muted tones of the extremely bloody recent French film A l’Intérieur (Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury, 2007).
A more striking comparison for me, is another recent horror film I previously reviewed for this site: Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan auf der Heide, 2009), with which it shares some thematic similarities (a journey into a dangerous space, men with terrible events on their conscience, the potential of release/freedom at the end of the journey, both physical and spiritual) and aesthetic ones. Like Van Diemen’s Land, Evil Rising employs a meditative mode of address, a narrative that is elliptical and somewhat obscure in places, and a definite air of ‘quality’ that casts the horror as extreme but not gratuitous, and is in the service of thinking through the effect of violence and savagery on men, and what comes after.
I have some reservations about how well the film as a whole controls its tone, overall shape and our relationship to characters, which felt somewhat minimal to me. Also whether, as with Van Diemen’s Land, the feeling of ‘quality’ (and its status as a ‘foreign’ (read: ‘art’) film – though this may also be an issue of translation) buoys up the impact of this and therefore doesn’t ask us to fully interrogate what is at stake or how well it is actually working.