I want to say I have no idea what in the hell just happened, but strictly speaking, that’s not true. I know what happened; I just don’t know how or why, or whether my confusion is due to the movie or to my own complete lack of knowledge about Finnish bogeyman mythology. (Wikipedia was unhelpful on the topic of sauna demons.)
In 1595, the end of a 25-year war between Russia and Sweden requires that borders between the two be redrawn. A border-mapping team consisting of three Russians and two Swedish brothers sets out on a trek to figure out what borders should be where. As a plot concept, this seems like it should be right up there with trade blockades around the planet Naboo on the “Really? You’re basing a movie on that, really?” scale, but it’s as good an excuse as any to send a group of people out into the back of the Blair Witch beyond.
The two Swedes are Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen). Eerik is a soldier, tired of war and yet unable to let it go, who keeps a disturbingly accurate tally of the number of people he’s killed. Knut has spent the war in the 16th-century equivalent of grad school and hopes to receive a posting as a professor when they return; this appears to be a rare excursion out of the ivory tower for him, and he’s pretty disturbed at the things his brother does. After a violent and rather traumatic encounter with a peasant family, he starts seeing creepy visions somewhat reminiscent of The Ring. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the team happens upon a strange village in the middle of a swamp, with a population exactly equal to Eerik’s kill tally.
The people in the village are very, very clean. (I didn’t actually notice this until one of the characters pointed it out.) They’re also afraid to give birth or die, because either one will cause them to have to go into the saunas that are lurking in the swamp looking weirdly like concrete bunkers. Of course, whatever it is that’s lurking in the saunas waiting to wash people clean of their sins whether they like it or not doesn’t really care what they’re afraid of, and with the border team’s arrival things start going to hell very quickly.
The movie is beautifully filmed, strangely paced, not strictly linear in timeline, full of weirdly surreal moments, horribly sad at the end, and damn creepy. I suspect it of keeping the viewer off-balance on purpose by skating around the edges of familiar genre cliches without ever falling in. I don’t know if Eerik’s sins were so great that they spilled out in horrific collateral damage onto everyone around him or what the deal was. I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed watching whatever it was that was going on.
So what’s the verdict? Three stars. I can’t decide if I’m really, really glad I was sober while watching this or vaguely sorry. It’s a slow, cerebral movie that still manages to inexorably ratchet up the dread all the way through, and the relationship between the two brothers is ultimately heartbreaking.
Also, there should be way more period horror films in this world. I’m sort of hoping for Romans next. Ooh, or Egyptians. Or Harappans, I don’t even care, there should just be more of them.