Directed by Jalmari Helander. Screenplay by Petri Jokiranta, Sami Parkkinen; based on a story by Jalmari Helander, Juuso Helander. Produced by Agnès B., Anna Björk, François-Xavier Frantz, Petri Jokiranta, Knut Skoglund. Music by Juri Seppä, Miska Seppä. Photographed by Mika Orasmaa. Edited by Kimmo Taavila. Production designed by Jalmari Helander. Starring Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Rauno Juvonen, Per Christian Ellefsen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale contains everything you could possibly want from a Christmas movie, including: snowy landscapes, reindeer, wide-eyed children, lights and decorations, loving fathers, poignant financial hardships, declarations of friendships, youthful displays of guilt, elves, and of course, Santa Claus. Of course, in this movie the elves are murderous naked codgers and Santa is a monster buried in ice who will destroy the world if thawed and awoken…but…hey. This is the time of year to count our blessings, and I was raised from a young age to appreciate things for what they are. If Rare Exports wants to posit an evil Santa Claus who will burst from a wintry cocoon and devour little kids, then more power to it.
Man, is this is a very strange and fascinating Finnish Christmas movie. Imagine The Thing crossed with Miracle on 34th St and you might be able to figure what it’s trying to do. Throw in a little Alien also, because towards the end we get an epic confrontation with a giant, drippy thing in an industrial hangar, and the movie’s adult characters have 100% mercenary motives, from the concerned father desperate to hunt reindeer and make a buck to the creepy little man named Riley (Per Chrisatian Ellefsen) who enlists a team of American excavators to dig up the giant monster Santa Claus, and gets more than what he bargained for. Unless he was secretly bargaining for death and destruction, in which case he does case exactly what he bargained for.
So, the frozen monster Santa Claus. He was trapped beneath a huge mountain of ice centuries ago thanks to some cunning villagers, who rightly figured that they didn’t enjoy an evil monster clomping through towns and scooping up naughty children. Unfortunately they never warned anyone to not wake up the sleeping giant, opting instead to pass down the Santa Claus legends through oral traditions that got twisted all out of shape into the fat and jolly myth that we all know and love. You’d think more people would be willing to get to the dark history behind the Santa Claus fantasy, but since Dan Brown never tried to write a book about it, these modern-day villagers are on their own.
The American excavators are under contract with a creepy gentleman with glasses. He orders the Americans to drill and drill, and he hopes to collect his prize without too much loss of life, then go on to exploit it and (possibly?) destroy the world. There may be real-world political commentary within his plotting, come to think of it. But really, he’s well aware of the secret history of Santa Claus and seems convinced that the beast can be tamed and…well, what? Maybe it’s just a childhood dream, you know, like some girls grow up and still want ponies, and this boy grew up and still wanted to meet the Santa Claus with razor-sharp teeth and a mean disposition. He supplies a card of rules for the American workers: “no cursing, no drinking, no smoking.” Because that’s naughty, you see. Yes?
Soon the entire American team is missing. In a way, the Americans in this movie function in the same way as the Norwegians do in John Carpenter’s The Thing: there’s an investigation into their disappearance, curiosity about what they discovered in the ice, and ominious portents. Rare Exports, I should note right now, is absolutely a horror movie, and plays true to horror conventions, grisly murders, freaky battles with supernatural figures, scenes ontop of snowdrifts that look both magical and menacing, and lots of shots of the wilderness, which may have something in there, or out there, or down there. I make it all sound glib, but it’s really well made. Some horror directors just have a knack for setting us on edge. I’m thinking of people like Carpenter, or Hitchcock, or even sometimes like M. Night Shyamalan. I’m not saying Rare Exports is as good as something by those men, but it has the same quality of being able to engage us while showing us for the longest time…well, nothing, effectively.
But while Rare Exports is indeed a horror film, I can’t help but feel the undercurrents of comedy, tongue-in-cheek so slightly that this tone actually may technically count as a minor lisp. The premise is of course absurd, but then most Christmas movies are technically absurd, but they’re persuasive and we go along with them. Rare Exports is quite persuasive even when it gets ridiculous, and it also never undercuts itself by winking, or elbowing us in the ribs. It’s not that the movie tries to convince us that this material is hilarious. It’s just that…when the men recover a naked man in the snow and then he comes to life and begins to silently threaten them and then they chain him from the ceiling so that his swinging body glares at them with soon-to-be-unleashed fury…well, it’s just funny, and we don’t have to be told that. “This is one of Santa’s helpers!” says Riley with such hushed reverance that it makes me convinced there’s a whole outtake reel from the making of this film dedicated to that one line.
There’s always a kid, and here that’s Pietari (Onni Tommila), who makes the wise horror movie decision of paying attention to the adult conversations and generally believing in the dark legend of Santa Claus. That’s probably due to the fact that (Pietari honestly believes he has not been good: the town’s current reindeer shortage (good for meat both home and abroad) may be due to the fact that, during one of his childish exploits, he cut a hole in a fence. That probably put them right in the path of the meat-eating Santa, so good job, Pietari. But it leads to a downright hilarious (but again, TOTALLY serious) scene where Pietrari is confessing his sin to his father (Jorma Tommila), who is a little distracted at this point by the escalating screams of his friends coming from the adjoining room.
The plot is not exactly a well-oiled machine, but there are two points in favor of that: (a) this is a short film, less than 90 minutes, and (b) it exists more to provide atmosphere, flavor, and tension that is at once ludicrous yet undeniable. Once you get to the point where hundreds of naked geezers are swarming over the tundra in an attempt to protect their master, you finally get a peek at the level the movie has been teasing at this whole time. It’s so wide-eyed and absurd that you can’t help but admire the pluck with which this movie was made.
The filmmaker is Jalmari Helander, who is, again, Finnish. You’d have to be not American to come up with something this wacky, since American filmmakers are typically locked into pre-approved routes, even during their supposed flights of fancy. Helander clearly has an idea here that he refuses to let go, and in fact he made it twice before as short subjects: “Rare Exports, Inc” (2003) and “Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions” (2005), which are included on the DVD release of “Rare Exports” and really should be viewed after the film so that one can continue to admire their ingenuity and creativity, if not exactly their good taste. The short films are less po-faced than the film, but even still they strike a quirky balance between parody and…well, seriousness.
This is a delightful little horror movie, alive with invention and style. It’s one of those films you dare not speak about too much, for too much hype would break its meager and definite spell. If I have one complaint about Rare Exports, it is that for all the talk we get about the evil Santa Claus…well, I wished we had seen more of him. I mean, he does appear onscreen, if you think about it, but…I just wanted a little bit more payoff. Instead, the main climax gives more screen time over to the band of vicious elves, so you see even in horror movies Santa delights in pawning off his work onto the elves. But then, I guess, if we saw a lot of Santa he would kill all the heroes and the world would end, and that’s probably a little too dark for what we want to see here. Instead, we get a real coming of age, some much-needed understanding between father and son, and happy endings for all, even for the villainous elves. I think.
Oh, and how can you hate a movie that has this line it, as the men are preparing to explode the frozen Santa tomb: “Haven’t you ever wondered how Santa Claus can be in millions of places at once?” You’d have to be made of stone to not give a little ho ho ho over that one.
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