It’s a rare treat to come across a film like Evil Rising (more on that damn title change anon): a project with unusual vision and high production values such as this comes around but seldom. This is definitely not your typical horror movie fare: Evil Rising has many elements in common with art house as well as horror. An ambitious, allegorical story with a thoughtfully-realised historical setting, it’s fair to say this Finnish film has moments of brilliance. It does, however, also have its moments of weakness.
The year is 1595 and a lengthy conflict between Russia and Sweden has finally come to an end: two Swedish soldiers and brothers, Erik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen) have been charged with travelling North alongside a group of Russians to assist with marking out new territorial borders between Finland and Russia. Erik, however, is finding it difficult to renounce the savagery of war – the only life he has ever known. The two men had been seeking shelter with a farmer and his young daughter and, before Erik and Knut set off on their mission, Erik butchers the man, claiming that he is a Russian conspirator. Knut, deeply affected both by his brother’s paranoid cruelty and by feelings of his own, locks the girl in a cellar ostensibly to ‘protect’ her. He makes his brother promise to free her before joining him…
Strangely, of all the terrible things both men have seen and done throughout the preceding years, it is the incident at the farm which seems to have had the greatest impact – certainly on Knut, who begins to see the terrifying vision of the girl and hears her voice begging him to return.
They press on towards their destination of Päiväkivi, making their way around a large area of supposedly-barren swampland, when they find an uncharted village. This place has no church, the villagers have no idea of what nationality they hold, and when they decide to stay there for a while this surreal place begins to take a toll on the men. As for the peculiar sauna building which lies just outside the village, old records state that this place was there even before the settlement: folk belief says it is a special place of ablution, something which promises important consequences for its visitors.
It may have a post-war setting, but this is truly a psychological drama with enough deft, supernatural touches to render an already-arduous tale more disturbing. I said that I felt this was an allegorical film; well, conscience is the overarching theme here, with concealment, locking away (literally and figuratively) and the consequences of committing reprehensible deeds symbolised and dramatised in intriguing ways. Powerful characterisation holds this together: both lead actors are very good but Erik (Virtanen) comes across as authentically unhinged, the man with the myopic stare, seething with rage and instability. His only point of real humanity is his relationship with his younger brother. Knut, on the other hand, is humane, reasonable, not a true soldier but a scholar – he suffers internally for his brother’s behaviour, and also feels the effects of his own.
The cinematography here is of a very high quality. Throughout, the stark setting is imbued with a sense of chill – cold, clear sunlight, obscuring fogs and freezing skies – and black darkness, used sparingly throughout, is very effective when it does appear. Aesthetically a striking piece of work, it’s a pleasure to see a historical setting done so well and so ambitiously.
So far, so good: there is a great deal to cherish in Evil Rising and it deserves kudos for that. My issue with the film is that, after such an immense, sophisticated build-up – great character development, creeping revelations about the village and the sauna, well-placed clues to follow in the script – it didn’t quite get there, moving instead into partial glimpses of what eventually happened, with little explication. Even allowing for the fact that Evil Rising contains supernatural and art house elements, for around the first hour of the film the plot is reasonably linear and steadily builds in recognisable ways. It felt throughout as though it was driving at something substantial. Instead, that tension began to unravel towards the close, and I didn’t feel that the film’s conclusion completed the story satisfactorily or matched the tone or pace of the film which had come before. Some more grounded details, particularly building on the relationship between Erik and Knut (a sense of which disintegrates later on) would have made the whole film feel more balanced, providing a fuller sense of pay-off for all the high quality elements preceding a rather scanty ending.
That said, fans of grandiose, artistic cinema should give this a go: it’s a beautiful, high quality film with much to recommend it. So, I have to wonder at the decision to change the title from Sauna to Evil Rising for the UK market, because this silly title does nothing to recommend it at all! Moving from a minimalist title (one which reflects the subtlety of the film and would also potentially throw it into the path of interested art house fans) to a brain-dead standard horror title (someone, somewhere believes that horror won’t sell to us British horror fans unless it has ‘zombie’, ‘dead’ or ‘evil’ in the title) potentially makes for people who might really like this putting it back, and people attracted to the daft title, therefore expecting any sort of generic ‘evil rising’, being very disappointed. A supreme misfire, and another misfire which reflects badly on whoever-it-is who takes it upon themselves to dumb down film titles for an audience they forever underestimate.
Editor’s note: for another take on this film, read Marc’s review from the US release (where the title remains Sauna).