Ah, Christmas. It’s a magical time of the year. A time where children behave like greedy savages, credit lines are extended and maxed-out beyond the possibility of repayment, and suicide rates spike around the globe. It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time when the holiday season brought out the best in people, boasting such outmoded concepts as peace, love, and good will toward men. For many cultures the long-since-corporately-co-opted Santa Claus stood as both the figurehead and enforcer of these values, rewarding the good children with gifts and trinkets while punishing the bad with lumps of coal. This, the most widely recognized version of Santa Claus, was inspired by a real life saint, Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Greek bishop known for his philanthropic nature and devotion to his Christianity. However, there were other, much more nefarious versions of the legend, most notably the spear-toting, horse-riding Norse god, whose cloth sack carried not gifts but the twisted remains of the naughty children he’d come to claim on Christmas Eve. This is the Santa of the brilliantly dark and humorous Finnish horror/fantasy, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.
In the Korvatunturi Mountains, an archaeological dig unearths an ancient ice tomb housing what the dig’s corporate sponsor believes to be the remains of Santa Claus. The dig has disturbed the local wildlife, sending packs of wolves scrambling across the Russian border, where they have been feeding on the livestock of the small community of Finnish hunters whose livelihood depends on the meat of the reindeer they round up every season. When one such roundup leads to the discovery of hundreds of mutilated reindeer, the locals blame it on the wolves, and, by proxy, the digging operation that’s sent them their way. Young Pietari (Onni Tommila), however, knows better. He’s been up to the dig site, and know what they’re truly up against. He’s overheard the mysterious project leader, Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen), talking about their “find”. Pietari knows what their foe is capable of, and he also knows that the slaughter of their reindeer is only the beginning. The problem is, who will believe him? Certainly not his father Rauno (Jorma Tommila), or Pietari’s bullying friend, Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää).
After all, who still believes in Santa Claus?
Move over Black Christmas, I’ve got myself a new holiday horror favorite to creep out my guests this year! Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is an absolute blast of a flick, filled with thrills, humor, heart, and even a healthy dose of action. Performances are across-the-board excellent, especially Jorma Tommila’s widower, Rauno, who imbues his character with a palpable sense of grief and despair, especially in his cold interactions with Pietari. It’s obvious that Rauno is lost without his wife, and has no idea how to communicate with his own child beyond being a strict disciplinarian, just as it’s obvious that Pietari mistakes this detachment for disappointment, and spends much of the film doing what he can to gain his father’s approval. The interactions between the two actors are oftentimes hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking, and always believable, giving Rare Exports the rare emotional center often lacking in the genre.
Originally a series of short films (Rare Exports Inc./ Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions) centering around “hunting” Santas (actually, Santa’s helpers) director, Jalmari Helander, has adapted and expanded his original vision to a briskly paced 77 minutes. This is an extremely polished film, with gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of lensman, Mike Orasmaa), and directed with no small amount of flair by Helander, who gives this small film a truly epic scope and feel, especially towards its rousing climax. The fact that Helander manages to tell this outlandish story without succumbing to parody or self-awareness is something of a Christmas miracle in itself.
While I doubt Rare Exports will win fans amongst general audiences looking for feel good holiday entertainment, horror fans and Scrooges alike will be absolutely delighted by Helander’s unique and thoroughly demented twist on yuletide tropes. This is definitely not one for the kiddies, though, as Rare Exports is occasionally quite grisly, features an overabundance of dirty, naked old men (yes, you read that correctly), and enough curse words to net you a lifetime supply of coal in your stocking!