“Sauna” just misses the mark

Horror has the potential to be the most culturally reflective genre in cinema. Beneath the darkness, beneath the bloodshed, there’s something deeper at work. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. “Sauna,” a murky shocker from Finland, seems deeper than it is.

Its setting is unique, the cinematography is beautiful, and the story’s nonlinear. It has the makings of an arthouse classic. But, in the end, there isn’t much beneath the surface.

Set in 1595, two brothers, Eerik (Ville Virtanen, “Love and Other Troubles”) and Knut (Tommi Eronen, “Kalevala – uusi aika”), are at the tail end of the Russo-Swedish War. Overcome with guilt after leaving a young girl to die, the two arrive in a village with a mysterious sauna in its center. The locals tell them that if you spend the night there all of your sins wash away.

Historical horror movies are hard to find. “The Witch” proved that pre-contemporary settings are ripe for scares. In a sense, “The Witch” succeeded where “Sauna” failed. Both have an incredible sense of place and tone. They’re shot impeccably, but “Sauna” leans on the performance of its star, Ville Virtanen.

Virtanen has a towering presence on-screen. He’s bedraggled, somehow ageless and ancient all at once, fiercely steeped in anger and denial. In every sense of the word, his performance is consummate. It’s just that nobody else’s is.

Tommi Eronen is serviceable as the younger brother Knut, but alongside Virtanen, he becomes bland and uninteresting. So, when your secondary cast falls by the wayside, the rest of the movie should pick up the slack, right?

Ideally, yes. “Sauna,” however, does not do that. Setting it in 16th century Eastern Europe is an inspired move. The world is murky, often damp, and always foggy. Early on, this sets the tone excellently. The cinematography is great, but it can’t make up for the shallow story and, oftentimes, utterly boring sequences. Strangely, the movie isn’t that scary.

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It relies on shadows and viewers’ imagination. But, because of sometimes shoddy lighting, too much is shown. This makes the big reveal less impactful. At that point, viewers have already seen everything. Because of this, the whole movie is weakened.

A fascinating setting and time period, excellent cinematography, and a riveting performance by Virtanen simply can’t save the shallow, empty heart of “Sauna.” The movie seems like it should be deeper than it is. But it isn’t, and it never reaches that place. Viewers might dig for meaning, but, no matter how deep you go, there is none.

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Title: “Sauna”

Director: Antti-Jussi Annila

Release date: Oct. 24, 2008

Genre: Horror

Country: Finland

Rating: 3/5