Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-12-19 09:51

Written by: Jalmari Helander & Juuso Helander (original idea), Petri Jokiranta & Sami Parkkinen (dramaturge)
Directed by: Jalmari Helander
Starring: Jorma Tommila, Peeter Jakobi and Onni Tommila

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

This year, everyone will believe in Santa Claus.

Rare Exports has a pretty wild concept, at least for anyone who never saw Santaís Slay: imagine if Jolly Saint Nick wasnít really so jolly after all. Instead, imagine that he was actually a demon who liked to boil naughty kids in a cauldron. Thatís what this cinematic export from Finland proposes, and, admittedly, it sounds like a setup for a real killer ďkiller SantaĒ flick, maybe even a ďgrittierĒ take on Santaís Slay. Itís none of that, though, as itís actually another twisted fable thatís somehow both dark and uplifting as it manages to skirt the expected horror payoffs to its setup.

Off in the remote mountains of Finland, a group of scientists have discovered a remarkably huge burial mound. Theyíve decided to excavate, much to the chagrin of some local reindeer herders; among the locals is young Pietari (Onni Tommila), who surmises that itís Santa Claus himself thatís buried up in the mountains. He was trapped there centuries ago by the frightened locals, and if heís awakened from his long winterís nap, he might be out to take revenge. At least thatís what Pietari suspects will happen, so he devises a plan to stop him.

Rare Exports is surprisingly concerned with what could happen; if youíre expecting to see a movie with a demented Santa Claus killing people off in slashery fashion, stick with Bill Goldberg. This one is much more low-key, drawing out a protracted mystery thatís alluring. The narrative holds Santa back, keeping him preserved or tied up (presumably) by the protagonists, who try to trade him in for cash (and apparently, the ďreal, original Santa ClausĒ fetches $85,000). Admittedly, this sounds like some kind of screwball comedy, but it isnít, as Rare Exports is trimmed with an odd tone. Falling somewhere between a chilling campfire tale and a childís storybook, it feels both sinister and light, and basically becomes the stuff of typical holiday fare.

Iíve seen a lot of sentiment that this is some kind of new ďanti-ChristmasĒ classic, but I think itís anything but that since it eventually reaffirms values of determinism and family values. It just happens to go way off the beaten path to get to that familiar place. And I do think itís the dark undertones that keep this movie interesting; I already enjoy Christmas and have probably seen every Rankin/Bass special on multiple occasions, but itís kind of fun to see Santa re-imagined as a gaunt, horned, demonic old man. Even his elves are presented in the same manner; at the end, it feels like Santaís got an entire army of creepy looking, bearded old guys that kind of remind me of Roberts Blossom in Home Alone. Obviously, thatís not something you see everyday.

Most incredibly, Rare Exports manages to work when it almost completely avoids the mystery it dangles for the entire runtime. Thereís some bait and switch involved, and, again, actual Santa slaying is minimal, as we only really see the aftermath of a reindeer slaughter and some other scattered human corpses. Youíll spend far more time with Pietari, his father (Jorma Tommila), and their buddies as they try to figure out just what theyíve stumbled into. I enjoyed everyoneís somewhat detached bemusement of the affair; thereís little wide-eyed disbelief, which allows the film to cut straight to the point. This is a sharply paced, direct story that gets in and out pretty quickly, yet still manages to leave quite an impression.

Perhaps thatís because itís so bizarre, but itís also finely crafted; the performances are rich, particularly the lead father and son duo. Both are still grieving from the lost of their wife and mother, and their relationship feels distant without being irrecoverably strained. Jalmari Helander brings a steady approach behind the camera and captures some stark, enveloping landscapes that surround you and drop you into this quaint little world. Despite the relative lack of actual action, he still manages to tell a visual story; his ďSantaĒ and helper elves are mute, but his camera captures their frosty, haunting gazes effectively. The craftsmanship here is quite precise; itís obvious that Helander has a feel for how film works, and heís even got a fantastically weird story to boot.

Rare Exports seems like it could be a one note premise banged out in tedious fashion, but it gracefully avoids that fate. In fact, itís quite limber in its ability to consistently bounce along from one mode to the next, all the while keeping focused on the central mystery at hand. This was a Fantastic Fest favorite from last year, and it only recently hit DVD in October, which proves just how long it takes for these things to reach most audiences. Oscilloscope distributed it on both DVD and Blu-ray; their standard def offering is pretty strong and boasts an anamorphic transfer and both 5.1 and 2.0 Finnish language soundtracks. This is supplemented by the two short prequels that inspired Rare Exports, a making-of feature, looks at both the concept art and special effects, some production stills, and the filmís trailer. I can see this one being a new holiday favorite, one that proves that even an evil Santa can still somehow beget the gift of family unity (and $85,000). Buy it!

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