Intellectual horror films are by and large a rare and splendid thing, simply because they are never spotted in nature. Like the legendary Bigfoot, they roam wild through the forests, scaring the locals, but anyone who brings tale of them is dismissed as being a lunatic.
In the 16th century, after a long and bloody war stretching over twenty-five years, the kingdoms of Russia and Sweden have tentatively agreed to peace. The war-torn landscape has been decreed divided between the two warring countries. Two brothers have been tasked to meet up with their Russian counterparts and travel through treacherous forests and swamps, marking out the divided border, each side still uneasy in the presence of the other.
The older brother Eerik is a decorated and ferocious soldier in service of his King; he has killed many times, and is quick to grab his sword and kill again, despite his failing eyesight. His frightening persona gives way in private moments to heavy guilt at the burden of so many lives on hs hands. In sharp contrast, his brother Knut is an intellectual and a cartographer by trade; he lives in a world of maps and books and is ill-suited to rough travel and combat.
In a small village, Eerik and Knut find shelter, but events soon turn bloody at the hands of the short-tempered elder brother. Calling out his hosts as pagan-worshipers, he murders the father and locks the young daughter in a cellar and abandons her to her fate. Knut is tormented by the guilt of this encounter, but finds himself distressed over his own impure thoughts. Eerik refuses to return to the site, as they need to meet up with their Russian counterparts and continue their map-making mission, carving the country in twain.
It is an exciting thing indeed to encounter a genuine “thinking man’s” horror film, as they occur so infrequently. Sauna is perplexing, dense and laden with religious, spiritual and soulful iconography and debate wrapped neatly around a handsomely composed horror film. Each element balances, without any element overshadowing the film–just when the rhetoric and the psychological musings about the nature of sin and humanity start to get too much, some crazy guy with no face shows up and the bodies pile up. Then, when you’ve seen just about as much as you can take of that, suddenly we are drawn into the sauna; on the nature of washing away one’s sin without the need for God, and whether this is a good thing or not.
Gritty and complex, this is not an easy film to digest, especially for those looking for a quick and bloody fix, so fare thee warned. There are elements explored in Sauna that are riveting and completely unique in the world of horror: meditations on original sin, on Christianity versus Paganism, of flawed souls and loss of faith in humanity.