Directed by Antti-Jussi Annila
Distributed by Matchbox Films
It’s circa 1595, and the 25-year war between Sweden and Russia has come to a close. Tasked with working alongside the Russians in a joint exercise to map the new borders are brothers Knut and Eerik Spore. As the film opens, the brutish Eerik is seen repeatedly stabbing someone on the floor while his brother looks on in shock. Turns out that the Russian farmer with whom they had been staying had attacked him with a hidden axe, and his retaliation was as swift and brutal as could be expected from a career soldier harbouring a body count in the 70s. Knut, meanwhile, has locked the Russian’s daughter in the cellar for her own protection.
Choosing to flee before the rest of the locals discover what has happened, Knut entrusts Eerik with the task of releasing the innocent girl, and they both set off in haste to meet up with their expeditionary partners. From there, the map-makers head on to encounter a village in the centre of a mysterious (and previously thought uninhabited) swamp. A feature of said swamp is an ancient sauna – one that has stood even before the land was the site of a monastery, revered by a sect of now inexplicably absent monks as a place in which one can wash away all of his sins.
Meanwhile, Knut begins to hear the voice of the Russian’s daughter begging him to come back, and when Eerik reveals to Knut that he did not, in fact, let her out of the cellar, his burgeoning guilt leads to an escalating series of disturbing visions and the fracturing of his relationship with his brother. As the unease continues to climb, it’s only a matter of time before the brothers will seek salvation for their actions within the otherworldly sauna – and discover that penance can come at a staggering price, especially for someone with as horrific a past as Eerik.
If the above sounds familiar to you, that’s because this film’s original title is Sauna, and it’s been around for a good three years now, having seen various success at festivals worldwide but only just making it to the UK DVD market. Annila’s film is an incredibly challenging, thought-provoking and philosophical piece of work. This is most certainly the type of film that on first viewing (and even the second and beyond!) tends to raise more questions than it answers, with the slightly fractured narrative and symbolic interpretations by the bucketload threatening to overcome the viewer’s intellect at every turn.
A seriously slow burner, the film manages to be consistently engaging through not only the sheer mystery and cerebral nature of the story but the absolutely fantastic performances by the lead cast. The characters are wonderfully realised, a factor bolstered by some hugely impressive costume design, and Ville Virtanen as Eerik, in particular, displays a screen presence so strong that every single glance, and every word said, appears to carry the weight of a thousand mortal sins.
Visually, Evil Rising is a stunner — sporting some beautifully lensed, breathtaking scenery (the final scene is a visual knockout) and assured, confident direction by Annila that quite clearly recalls the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Panu Aaltio’s varyingly sweeping, deeply affecting and mournful orchestral score is similarly beautiful.
It must be stressed that Evil Rising isn’t a slam-bang horror show, but an unremittingly bleak exercise is slowly-drawn fear, an allegorical musing on the nature of human guilt and repentance, and a startling reminder that no matter what we may think or wish, we aren’t always the ones forced to atone for the sins that we ourselves commit. There’s very little in the way of blood and gore or special effects, but what we do see is very effective, including one seriously creepy (even if it is merely glimpsed) creature effect amongst the final moments. If you’re willing to set your brain in gear and break the lever off so that you really, really pay attention, then you’ll without doubt find yourself eagerly taking on the challenge that Annila’s film presents. While, at times, it does threaten to crumble under its own ambiguity and stubborn refusal to dish up enough (occasionally very much needed) straight answers, the sense of place and impeccable realisation continues to ensure your absorption in the proceedings.
It’s rather perplexing that Matchbox Films would choose to release the film with such a so-cliché-as-to-be-denigrating title as Evil Rising when the original Sauna would have easily sufficed. Here’s hoping it doesn’t cause this particular gem to be wrongly overlooked by potential audiences as just another straight-to-DVD crapfest. This is the type of film that firmly demands a second run the moment the credits begin to roll, as behind the awful title lies a compelling, intellectual and demanding piece of work that will haunt you for some time to come.
Matchbox Films’ DVD release of Evil Rising sports a pleasing visual transfer free from any major defects, holding up pleasingly within the pitch-black confines of the sauna location and managing to uphold definition amidst the murky browns and greens of the film’s palette. On the audio side, the original Finnish language track is presented in Dolby Digital with English subtitles. It’s well balanced, with no volume or distinction issues and weighs up nicely. Still, it would have been greatly appreciated had a 5.1 track been provided so that the viewer could be fully enveloped by the film’s remarkable score. On the special features side of things, we get only a short trailer. Boo.
4 out of 5
1/2 out of 5