Antti-Jussi Annila’s intriguing second feature sees the award-winning Finish director on the sharp end of some typical busy-but-pointless DVD marketing rebranding treatment in service of this, the film’s bare-bones UK release, courtesy of Matchbox Films: originally released under the admittedly uninspiring English language title “Sauna”, this enigmatic supernatural tale now sports the misleadingly generic bargain basement horror-lit moniker “Evil Rising” instead – which hardly seems any more likely to send copies flying off of shelves. Annila’s film is a tough sell, it has to be said: pitching up for business with a blanched gritty face and a lush but sonorous full orchestral score that places it somewhere between an austere sixteenth century-set historical Russian fable and a clammy, J-Horror-inflected occult thriller; the film is certainly odd, uncompromisingly subtle arthouse horror fare -- but unique enough to warrant some interest from those who like their scares enmeshed in a sober historical context that embraces European military history, theology and a bracing dose of intellectually stimulating contemplation centred on the interaction of both. Well, I mean, who doesn’t?
If, like me though, you’ve somehow skipped negligently through this life with little regard for the intricacies that attend to late-sixteenth century Russian-Swedish history, you will doubtless be more than slightly thankful for the explanatory text at the start of this film, which is presented against the sepia, Hammer-esque image of a map depicting Central Europe at the time, on which the state borders are being inked out for our benefit in an animated line of blood red.
The year is 1595 and Sweden and Russia have just emerged from a brutal conflict which has lasted for twenty-five years; a dispute greatly informed by the opposing sides’ differing positions with regard to Europe’s Church divide after the religious Reformation of the period. The end of the war means new borders have to be formally agreed upon by both the participants. To that end, representatives from both the Swedish and Russian armies are to join forces as part of a joint Royal Border Commission – their aim: to visit together all the outlying regions and officially mark the newly redrawn map territory recently agreed between the Emperor of Russia and the King of Sweden -- areas that now comprise modern-day Finland -- divvying up between them which parts are to remain in Russian hands and which are to find themselves incorporated into Sweden.
The almost romantically grim backdrop sees two soldier brothers – prematurely grizzled veterans on the Swedish side of the campaign, Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen) -- galloping through a hinterland of haunted, jade black, snow-flecked fairy tale forests in the wintertime, on their way to meet up with their equivalents on the Russian Commission who’re led by the equally crease-lined and sternly poker-faced Captain Semenski (Viktor Klimenski). The brothers have widely varying attitudes to the new peace which is about to end the conflict that has marked and defined their passage into early adulthood: the younger, optimistic Knut is hoping that a successful completion of this assignment will aid him in his hoped-for future career in Swedish law; while the dour, battle-hardened and puritanical Eerik is disgusted by what he sees as capitulation to heretical religious practices.
On the night before they are due to meet up with the Russian faction, the two accept the hospitality of a poor farmhand and his teenage daughter in a remote wooded region about to be re-incorporated into Sweden after a period of years in which it has seen occupation by Russian forces. As though in sympathy with the narrow focus of his political and religious views, Eerik is also chronically physically short sighted, and has to wear a pair of wire-framed spectacles which become a source of fascination to the fair-haired daughter of their host, who has never seen such things before. His brother Knut is aware of her curious eyes spying on them through slats in the sauna while they’re relaxing naked, a fact to which his blind brother is oblivious in the steamy dark, without the aid of his flimsy aid to vision.
While the two are being served supper later in the evening, Eerik is outraged to discover that the farmhand host has gone over to Russian Orthodoxy in his religious practice during the time in which the region has been under the guidance of the Russians. Although their host had tried his best to hide them, an empty shelf, used for displaying the religious icons he’s been carefully stowing away until the brothers had left, gives the game away! This is both a nationalistic and religious betrayal in Eerik’s fiercely protestant Swedish eyes, and the older brother callously murders the man for this taint on Swedish culture by stabbing him to death; while in the meantime Knut, his lusts roused by the earlier innocent curiosity of the daughter, has his awkward attempt to seduce her spurned. Out of humiliation and spite, he locks the girl in the dark sauna, telling himself that he is merely protecting her from the murderous intentions of his brother.
But Eerik sets fire to the whole farmstead and Knut knows that he has condemned the innocent girl to die -- since his brother is unlikely to bother to release her and leave a witness to their crime.
The next day, the brothers meet up with Captain Semenski and his men. A fragile, tense coalition is formed, with a contemptuous Eerik becoming intensely suspicious of the loose friendship that soon forms between his brother Knut and one of Semenski’s officers, Musko (Kari Ketonen), while the riders are embarking upon their mission. Knut is still haunted by what might have happened to the girl he and his unrepentant brother left behind, and as the posse sets out through a rough terrain of rambling woodland, he is soon experiencing ghostly manifestations of this guilt in the form of fleeting glimpses amid the twisted grassy scrubland of a blackened female figure dressed in rags, whose contorted face leaks a horrific filthy black tar …
Henri Blomberg’s bleached but austerely beautiful cinematography and Panu Aaltio’s dark strings-based score are instrumental in establishing the ‘serious’ foreign arthhouse tone of proceedings which have led some commentators to bracket the film as being visually and thematically akin to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky or perhaps the Ingmar Bergman of "Virgin Spring". Despite its brooding, mud-spattered forest setting and an obscure poeticism that seems to inform the film’s haunted J-horror imagery with its faceless spectres and indefinable lurking presences , it certainly feels like one really needs a degree in the region’s religious history in order to fully comprehend the kind of symbolism that informs the apparently random supernatural happenings and plot developments in the latter half of the film -- yet the unflinchingly serious screenplay’s evocation of such themes as the myopic mind-set of religious extremism, the murderous results of Nationalist regionalisms and the notion that acts of mindless cruelty will flourish even among the apparently civilized in the lawless zones that are brought about by war, are certainly no less apposite and powerful than they were in the 1500s.
The film in its first act seems to be heading for a relatively standard ‘guilt haunting’ storyline, with the usually civilised and thoughtful Knut’s consciousness being now eternally stained by the terrible ‘crime against humanity’ in which he has had a crucial role because of a moment of madness, and for which he now seeks some kind of redemption. As the two brothers and their Russian guides traverse a rough terrain, Knut seems to see the girl’s spectre everywhere and becomes convinced she’s even lurking on the distant horizon like an MR James spook when not terrorising him up close with accusatory whispers and putrefying corpse-like manifestations -- but his short sighted brother can’t see that far ahead to reassure his terrified brother, even with the aid of his new spectacles. Semenski, meanwhile, takes a detached but caustic approach to Eerik’s intolerance and extremism: ‘you fear this peace because it will take away your entitlement to all your murderous acts’, he sagely informs the older Swede, bringing home the fact that the moral crime the two brothers have perpetrated threatens to become ever more corporal as the war recedes ever further.
Events take an even more esoteric turn when the group stumble upon an isolated community living deep in what was previously thought to have been uninhabited swampland. The people of this village seem uninterested in naming themselves as being either Swedish or Russian, and even gender can be ambivalent in these undefined, unmapped surroundings (a young boy befriended here by the two brothers, later turns out to be a little girl). The elders claim to have arrived here and settled these dwellings, which were found only after they were already abandoned by the monks who originally built them. At the heart of the community is a strange, almost monolithic sauna – a large white bunker-like construction with a rectangular doorway that leads into what later emerges as a sort of ‘Lynchian’ dream portal, an occulted black hole into a bewildering, possibly malevolent, spiritual dimension. Here it seems one may cleanse oneself of ones sins as well as the physical dirt and mud of the swamp, but strange deaths and a murderous madness begin to overtake the newcomers as they haggle over how to mark this area on their border map.
The key idea in all this is related in an enigmatic parable told by Captain Semenski early on in the film, about a Russian palace that was made from dirt and filth because dirt is the mark that is left when two things touch each other – so all our memories are really made out of such filth. The bizarre, disturbing idea finds expression in Knut’s strange blotchy birthmark tattoo seen on his back, the black mud that constantly covers the uniforms and gets under the very fingernails of the traveling companions, and the always inviting bottomless oblivion that beckons from the entrance portal to the uncanny swampland sauna, making the concept of sin and the notion of its cleansing an ever present one in the film’s mysterious iconography; not to mention one that is constantly represented by the sickly black noxious emissions that pour out of the mouth of the ghostly girl spectre who follows Knut on his journey, and which also cascade from the black pit void of a faceless ghoul who is summoned for the film’s climax -- in the director’s only real concession to more conventional, disturbing horror film imagery. The pace is otherwise stately and slow and the screenplay more concerned with the subtle development of character relationships than making the viewer jump or grossing him/her out with excessive gore and grue, yet the sombre, pessimistic atmosphere and the fatalistic dark tone will soon work their effects on those who are willing to stick around for the grim conclusion. “Evil Rising” is a powerful, masterly exercise in intelligent subtle horror, addressing the inevitability of man’s inhumanity to man and the seemingly ineradicable nature of his personal demons, all being led by gritty, convincing performances by a small cast of main players. The UK DVD is a bare-bones release that offers only a trailer besides the 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer of the film itself, but the transfer seems a reasonable representation of the film’s sombre pallet and the dim graininess is mostly intentional. An unusual film that’s well worth giving a shot.