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DVD Review: ‘Evil Rising’ (‘Sauna’)

★★☆☆☆

Evil Rising (also known as ‘Sauna’ [2008]), the second feature from award winning Finnish director Antti-Jussi Annila, is a challenging horror film with a heavy, exceptionally well-achieved eerie atmosphere that doesn’t let up. Unfortunately, despite his efforts towards evoking supernatural chills, Annila doesn’t appear to have been all that interested in the horror-side of his film, which, with a title like Evil Rising is initially disappointing.

Instead we’re treated to something far more original, daring and character lead – that at times seems to suggest that the eventual elements of horror we’re subjected to, may have been worked into the script simply to get the project off the ground. Indeed, a pitch for a bleak story of atonement following two brothers, Knut and Erik, commissioned to mark the new political boundaries between Finland and Russia after a long and brutal war between Russia and Sweden, doesn’t exactly scream ‘marketable audience’ even in contemporary art-house circles, but crowbar in a ghostly white girl haunting the tormented brothers, and a creature with a face continuously pouring with mud and dirt, and you may just have a yourself budget, alongside a lot of mess to deal with.

While I’m speculating here, the incoherence of the horror strands in Evil Rising really do let it down quite substantially, especially come the final act, but without them it’s highly unlikely it’d have made it to production at all, let alone secure any kind of distribution.

For the first fifty minutes, Evil Rising’s sombre, sedate and hypnotically beautiful in style. The cinematography crisply takes in the commendably detailed costume and set designs, the gloriously unforgivingness of the barren landscapes and the equally barren characters. Coupled with patient editing and tremendous performances from actors privileged enough to work with a script that seems to know itself very well (for the time being at least); there’s never a moment of doubt that we’re situated in 1595 Russia with two troubled souls.

And then the brothers arrive into a spooky little village, the horror starts proper, and it all gets a bit muddled and what started out so well becomes truly lost. All the points of interest disappear quite literally into the mist. Up to this point there’s interesting and subtle discussion carrying philosophical undercurrents, posing questions around the characters’ penance and sins; can we ever truly be forgiven for diabolical deeds?; or is it always too late? Alongside the atypical setting, it keeps you watching relatively contentedly despite its slow and testing pacing. In short it’s good stuff.

Once in the village, though, the gaps become gaping gorges that its unavoidable ignore. You realise that we actually don’t know that much about the two men or why they’re so troubled; with not enough back story and few new developments there’s not enough to get you through its “horror” conclusion, and all that formerly good stuff remains either unexplored or gets totally discarded. What started out with such head-strong confidence, with such a fantastic command of its atmosphere, carried off with outstanding levels of craft all-round, not least of all the directing talents of Annila himself, starts to feel as tedious and unexplainable as the girl with dirt flowing out of her face, that ultimately didn’t leave me with the desire to recommend it to anyone.

Hopefully the next A-J Annila film will feel less incomplete because for how far Evil Rising goes out of its way to ruin itself, complete and clear is too difficult and optimistic to envisage.

Matt Migliorini