Over the years, filmmakers have inundated us with movies depicting Santa Claus as a jolly old fat man who delivers presents to all the boys and girls around the world. However, 2010’s contentedly macabre Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale proposes that this fictionalised “Coca-Cola Santa” was invented to cover up who Santa really was: a horrifying, horned half-man/half-beast. A sort of Finnish-made Gremlins for the 21st Century, this tremendously peculiar horror/fantasy/dark comedy presents an entirely original take on the Christmas mythos, representing the perfect antithesis to the type of traditional holiday films to which we have become accustomed (and have grown sick of). Even if the picture only scratches the surface of its marvellous central premise, Rare Exports is destined to become an annual Yuletide staple for several households.
Single father Rauno Kontio (Jorma Tommila) lives in the shadow of the Korvatunturi Mountains in Finland with his son Pietari (Onni Tommila), and relies on the yearly migration of the reindeer for food and money. When a clandestine American-led dig commences in the mountains, strange things begin to occur – an entire reindeer herd is found slaughtered, radiators are stolen, and kids go missing. Frightened yet curious, Pietari sets out to conduct research, and uncovers the origins of the real Santa Claus who may have been awakened from his icy tomb by the American excavators. It isn’t long before a bizarre old man is caught in Rauno’s wolf trap who fits the description of Santa. With Christmas rapidly approaching, Pietari is horrified about what’s to come.
Rare Exports contains very few typical Christmas movie customs. There’s no holiday music or gift giving here, as writer-director Jalmari Helander sought to portray a more unsentimental version of the festive season, and he takes the idea of a malevolent Santa Claus rather seriously. It would’ve been easy for Helander to have created either a straight comedy or a run-of-the-mill slasher flick out of this silly premise, but Helander instead treats the premise as reality, making it easy to get immersed in this frightening fantasy. Rare Exports is somewhat moronic, but Helander plays everything with a brilliant poker face, incorporating pathos, character development, genuine stakes, and even a few scenes of impressive spectacle. It’s an odd cocktail but it works, yielding a terrifically alternative Christmas flick that’s more Brothers Grimm than Rankin-Bass which criss-crosses genres with utmost elegance.
The flick is based on two popular short films from 2003 and 2005 which were written and directed by Helander. Expanding a short to feature-length is a tricky proposition, hence Rare Exports runs a mere 80 minutes, with Helander working to ensure the picture doesn’t outstay its welcome. The film still feels a tad stretched out from time to time, but sluggish patches are thankfully few and far between. Rare Exports was produced for a rather small sum, yet it never looks cheap and it excels in terms of visuals and atmosphere. Director of photography Mika Orasmaa is a huge asset – his cinematography is skilfully dark and moody, giving genuine majesty to the expansive Finnish snow-scapes. Towards the end of the film, though, a revelation hints that things are about to skyrocket to an entirely new level, but Helander seems to baulk. It ultimately feels like a tease, closing the picture on somewhat of a damp squib. Ditto for the elves, who don’t entirely fulfil their potential. It would seem that the budget likely prevented certain things from transpiring, which is a shame.
Quality child actors are rare, but Onni Tommila is a terrific little performer, perfect for the role of Pietari. Onni ably balances fear and determination, and he always seems 100% committed to the material, no matter how outlandish it is. He’s a solid entry point into the film for viewers. The best relationship in the film is between Pietari and his father, played by Onni’s real-life dad Jorma Tommila. Jorma exhibits a strong mixture of fatherly warmth and stern frustration, and his interactions with Onni carry a warm, believable edge. Also great is Rauno Juvonen, who oozes cool and whimsical charm as Piiparinen.
Though the climax feels a tad underdone, Rare Exports closes on a high note, with a satirical (and cynical) commentary on the global commercialism of Christmas. Fortunately, Helander refuses to sell out with a treacly-laden conclusion; instead, the flick is dark right through to its ending. Rare Exports is not perfect, but it’s exceptionally audacious, with a story balancing warmth, horror and deadpan dark humour, making it well worth your time if you’re sick of heart-warming Christmas cheer. Without a doubt, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale will not work for everyone, but it comes highly recommended for anyone seeking to watch a truly unique and offbeat movie destined to become a cult classic.