Horror Movie a Day, I have the pleasure of experiencing horror from two countries I've never seen any movies out of, let alone horror: Finland--in the case of Sauna--and Israel (Rabies), which I look forward to next week. My knowledge of Scandinavian horror films is quite limited (Frostbitten, Let the Right One In, Troll Hunter, Hidden, and Dead Snow), so Sauna was more than welcome. As a bonus, the film was more than good; it was great. I've said repeatedly on this blog that my favorite horror movie is the psychological slow-burn with careful attention to mood and tone. Well, direct from Finland comes the perfect psychological slow-burn with careful attention to mood and tone!
The atmosphere and pacing remind me of an H. P. Lovecraft story. Even in the case of his shorter pieces, such as "From Beyond," each sentence is meticulously crafted with attention to building extreme feelings of mystery, ambiguity, and uncanny. ("From Beyond," by the way, was adapted by Stuart Gordon for the 1986 movie of the same name.) Consider also "The Festival," wherein Lovecraft is able to effect a single simile that reinforces the atmosphere of dread: "...black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse" (now that's just superb imagery). All of these little devices culminate, in most of his pieces, in a quick, cutting ending, an ending that seems almost truncated, leaving the reader unsettled and the horror fiend within the reader satisfied, yearning to come back again and again to the murky, shadowy dreamworld of Lovecraft. Such is the format of Sauna, with its creeping sensation that patiently unravels until the visually stunning ending that left me dying for the chance to watch the film again.
Now, don't confuse my description of the movie's patience and atmosphere with the trademarks of Ti West. The two are in a similar category, but what I'm getting at is something of a different flavor. At its core, the effect of the film is somewhat ineffable, but you'll know it when you see it. It would, however, be interesting to watch The House of the Devil and Sauna back-to-back and note the differences and similarities (not in terms of story, obviously). For example: the period settings of the 1980s and the 16th century, respectively. When it comes to suspense-building and atmosphere, nothing ruins it, for me, worse than modern technology. This is the reason why so many horror novels are devoid of periods during which the home computer or cell phone was proliferated. Because without these familiar objects there is immediately a literal and, concomitantly, psychological disconnectedness. Some writers, if settings a story in the present day, take pains to remove these familiar fear-limiting obstacles (obstacles not only due to familiarity, but also because they place help a few clicks away). This is why cars break down, gas tanks are purged, and cell phone can't get reception. In Stephen King's Bag of Bones, the main character begins inexplicably fainting and throwing up, and otherwise reacting violently, to his computer. Thus, he cannot use it; and thus we are stripped of the objects of comfort that keep us from the stillness, the abyss that we so fear.
Unlike a babysitter stuck in a beautiful Victorian house far from town, with a mysterious unseen character somewhere upstairs, and without a cell phone or computer (though there is a standard phone mounted on the wall with a coiled cord that brought back memories of unraveling those wretched things!), Sauna gives us the northern forests of sixteenth-century Scandinavia/Russia. This monotonous setting used to bother me, but filmmakers have stepped it up a lot and have even found ways of making a movie that takes place entirely inside a coffin intense and entertaining. The cinematography and composition of Sauna keep the viewer unaware of the monotony of the locale. The proverbial sauna, situated in the water, in the middle of the woods is beautifully captured. There are a few key shots of the sauna that would've been much more visually sensational had I been able to forgo subtitles. But it's not that bad, and don't even think of switching from the original audio track--it would be ridiculous with dubbing. Anyway, the water slowly lapping against the bizarre structure and the black abyss of the only opening in the building are just a few examples of the film's pleasing aesthetics.
On top of all this, we get a perfectly matched score and chilling horror sequences, especially the finale. Interestingly, some of the horror bits (the apparition following Knut) tended to remind me of the myriad Japanese revenge films (The Eye, The Ring, etc.) both in story and execution, and I kept waiting for the movie to allow some goofy jump-scare or such nonsense to ruin the mood. Luckily, the movie measured out the scares commensurately to the collective film. And aside from all the elements that went into making the movie enjoyable for nearly any film fan, Sauna boasts the proper story for any film with a cerebral/psychological bent. It's not one of those films that appears to purposely derail its viewers and obscure details (Skew), but it's not a film with an in-your-face twist either (High Tension). Sauna, simply put, is a well rounded movie ready to invigorate any serious horror fan.