EVIL RISING (aka SAUNA) UK DVD review

Antti-Jussi Annila's Sauna (or Evil Rising, for this UK DVD release) is undeniably a very good movie, if a clear case of the director slightly over-reaching after his magnificent (and sadly under-rated) debut, Jade Warrior. That film leant heavily on style over substance, but it was absolutely beautifully constructed and so clearly heartfelt it made something lasting and profound out of what was a fairly simple story. Sauna tries for cerebral and searching, only it doesn't quite manage to convince. It's a bitter, cynical little morality play where it's clear none of the cast are going to get off lightly, but Annila doesn't really introduce them well enough for this to have the impact it ought to. Couple that with the very specific period setting and the lofty ruminations on sin and redemption and small wonder Sauna originally premiered to an empty theatre.

At the end of the 16th century, Russia and Sweden have finally struck an uneasy peace after many years of fighting. Two brothers, Erik (Tommi Eronen, who also starred in Jade Warrior) and Knut (Ville Vertanen) have been employed by the delegation from both sides responsible for re-establishing the borders between Finland and Russia. Erik's the naïve young idealist who dreams of making it home to a life of peace and academic study, but can't shake off the lure of the freedom war offers to commit all sorts of nastiness. Knut is the ageing warrior grown old and half-blind in service, who's slowly coming to terms with the fact no peace will ever heal the wounds the things he's seen and done in the war have left on his psyche.

When the delegation reach a swamp in the outlying reaches of their map, they discover a mysterious village smack dab in its centre - a place claimed by neither country, where the inhabitants seem almost ignorant of the outside world. Swedes and Russians are still bitterly divided by personal grudges, and the brothers are haunted (literally) by what happened in a farmhouse where a family gave them shelter the night before joining the delegation. All of them are drawn to the strange building at the heart of the village, the sauna - people speak about it almost in fear, as if it's not really a building at all. But is it a place a person's wrongdoing can be absolved, or something far more sinister?

Without wishing to spoil anything, the answer would be a little from column A, a little from column B; none of the cast are rotten to the core, but it's clear from the start they're all going to have to pay, one way or another, for the bad things they've done. Can anything honestly be forgiven, the film seems to ask? Is saying you're sorry - hell, any act of contrition, bar the ultimate - ever really enough? As you may have guessed, there are precious few laughs in Sauna, and those you do get are generally pretty black. It opens with an act of madness fuelled by fear, paranoia and self-hatred, and only goes downhill from there. And it's slow going, too, with characters talking round their problems or repressing their anger until it's too late to do anything constructive about it.

The thing is, for all Jade Warrior was an obvious fairytale - with characters who were archetypes rather than actual people - Annila let you spend some time with them, at least, before things began to get weird. And while the key dramatic moments were very broad gestures relying on well-worn cliches (it's a film that hinges on one scene where two characters fall in love in five minutes flat) it was clear what the director was doing and how he'd laid the groundwork, even if you didn't buy into the illusion. Eronen and Vertanen do some excellent work in Sauna, with Vertanen particularly effective as a man who looks back on innocence like something he read about in a book once, but there's an awful lot of telling you what terrible things they've done or witnessed versus not much showing their capacity for evil.

Too much of the arc set in the village is people guessing at what's actually going on, or drawing conclusions they never actually explain to anyone, if they even get the chance. The central question, can sin ever be forgiven, is a perfectly good one and there's a nicely subtle shift in focus around the half-way mark. But all this is muddied somewhat by the lack of background detail or characters going back to the reason they're ostensibly there (laying out the new borders after the war) which isn't explored to any great degree, whether as a question of identity, or the horrors of war or anything else. Annila and DP Henry Blomberg shoot the blasted countryside in a fantastic-looking tone of late summer evening grit, parts of it saturated with colour but still dark and forbidding. But it's a little too obvious they couldn't afford many effects, much of the film centres on the same anonymous backgrounds and their cast are just a bunch of guys in period costume; again, there's no real evidence a war's been grinding on elsewhere beyond a lot of people looking very upset.

Sauna is still a very good film; the cast are uniformly effective. There's a genuinely tragic tone to the narrative arc, particularly when it becomes obvious just how bleak the ending's gunning for. It looks fantastic, and for all the low budget shows Annila does a reasonable job of carefully pacing his resources. It's not frightening as such, but certainly haunting - if you appreciate more thoughtful scares the final scene ought to stick with you for a long, long time. But it's still one of those films that falls conspicuously short of being great. Jade Warrior hit on a universal theme and used it with enough artistry and grace you could forget, as with many great films, how essentially played out it was. Sauna tries to be a little more highbrow, but goes about it in arguably the wrong way. Nonetheless, if you've got the patience for it, and you're prepared to overlook its shortcomings it's definitely recommended.

THE DISC:

Matchbox Films' UK DVD of Evil Rising (I'm going to give it the title on the case for this part of the review), available to buy from Monday 25th July, is a cheap but cheerful presentation that's admittedly rather better than you might expect from something so bare-bones. I'm assuming what I've received is the actual retail release, which is a fairly flimsy case and a DVD-5. After the distributor's logo, the disc jumps straight into a static menu - though the front end is perfectly easy to navigate. The film is divided into twelve chapter stops.

The basic audio track (what it actually is doesn't appear to be listed) is fine - Evil Rising is part Finnish, part Russian dialogue, but everyone speaks clearly if fairly quietly for the most part. Unsurprisingly, there's not much here to bother anyone's speakers - some screaming, some orchestral crescendos - but the sound is free from distortion, though not especially sharp. Subtitles are fixed, though clear and legible with only a few instances of what read like rushed or overly literal translations. A couple of lines are intentionally not subtitled.

The video quality is obviously reduced, though the picture still seems surprisingly good. Blacks and darker colours don't have much detail but there's no distracting blocking and much of Evil Rising is a lot cleaner and sharper than the tech specs would suggest. It may partly be the way Annila and his DP shot the film - regardless, although it probably wouldn't impress on a big screen, it's still a more than adequate viewing experience.

The only extra is the trailer, which does a good job establishing the film's tone but as usual, manages two or three fairly sizeable spoilers and is probably best avoided.

Sauna, or Evil Rising or whatever you want to call it is something of a disappointment after Antti-Jussi Annila's exceptional debut. It's not quite as intellectual as it seems to think, and it tries to coast on symbolism and ambiguity when the story begs for just a bit more fine detail. All the same, it's a powerful little film for all its flaws, beautifully presented and acted, and if your taste in horror runs to the slower, more measured sort of story-telling Matchbox Films' UK DVD is very bare bones, but still a perfectly good way to experience the movie.

(Thanks go to Matchbox Films and The Associates PR for facilitating this review.)
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