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Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (15)

Film review: Rachel Winterbottom is spooked by this Finnish festive funny-horror

Written by . Published on December 16th 2010.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (15)

"HE sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake". As if the lyrics to this Christmas song weren’t ominous enough, if you knew jolly old Saint Nick had horns, a pot for boiling naughty children in and was actually real you’d be blocking your fireplace faster than you could say "Santa Claus is coming to town."

The looming presence of the burial mound dwells in the background of nearly every shot, dirty footprints materialise in the snow, terrifying wooden dolls replace children as they sleep.

This is the reality for the Finnish locals in writer/director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports, a black comedy-horror for the festive season. Up in the Korvatunturi mountains in snowy Finland a group of workers have been hired by a pantomime villain to excavate a burial mound. Not only is this is the biggest burial mound in the world, being a mountain, the workmen are issued with orders not to swear or smoke on the dig and have to regularly wash behind their ears. Also, their treasure is a mythical, murdering beast. Aren’t there unions for this sort of thing?

Young local Pietari (an adorable and naturalistic Onni Tommila) has been watching the workers with his bullish friend, Juuso, and develops his own theories about what the men are digging up. It isn’t long before the villagers who live in the mountains suffer the consequences of the grave robbery when they find hundreds of their reindeer dead, resulting in £85,000 losses in the meat market. Pietari, fearing the animals were slaughtered by wolves that entered through the hole he made in the excavation site fence, is too afraid to confess his guilt to his abattoir-owning father.

Soon, however, the lonesome boy is distracted by researching the original legend of Father Christmas, because, after wolves, a rampaging Santa Clause is the biggest cause of reindeer massacre. Pietari tries to convince the other five villagers that the Coca Cola Santa is a myth, and the horned, child-stealing Saint Nicholas is real. They soon believe him when their children go missing and an ear-biting, gingerbread-loving naked old man makes an appearance, and so hatch a plan to recuperate their reindeer-losses.

The subtitled Rare Exports is based on a 2005 short film, The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions, by the same Finnish writer/director team, Jalmari and Juuso Helander. The short featured the majority of this film’s small cast, including a younger Tommila. Unfortunately, while the 2010 version is still short, the neat concept doesn’t quite stretch for the whole 84 minutes running time.

This distinctive film still has a lot to offer. It has a unique quality to it, not unlike director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Much like Alfredson’s frozen and oddly beautiful ‘80s Stockholm, the Finnish village seems isolated and poised at a fixed point in time, forced by the weather and mountainous location to forgo mobile phones and supermarkets, instead relying on walkie-talkies and the local abattoir. It’s the perfect location for a horror, essentially, and yet its full potential is never utilised.

While there is only a smattering of horror in this film, when it does appear it’s brooding and ominous. The looming presence of the burial mound dwells in the background of nearly every shot, dirty footprints materialise in the snow, terrifying wooden dolls replace children as they sleep and the first appearance of the elderly man who crouches foetal-like and naked on the bloody floor of the abattoir establishes Santa as a silent, unquantifiable terror.

Although not the comedy-horror it’s billed as, being neither particularly funny nor horrifying, it does have a grubby little sense of humour that makes the odd appearance. Pieter’s friend and pet Vuppe is just a toy he drags along on its lead, there is gratuitous OAP nudity and in one excellent scene, the gruff locals munch on gingerbread whilst pondering what to do with a severely pissed-off naked old man they have hanging on a meat hook.

The film’s highlights lie in the wonderfully constructed small-scale scenes, such as the tender moments between Pietari and his stoic father. The dynamics of their relationship with each other are subtly hinted at through the sparse script, with visual reminders of an absent mother lying in the tattered flowery apron his otherwise gruff and emotionally-inept father wears whilst cooking. This is a small family unit that you genuinely care about.

The film almost succeeds with the coming of age theme. Pietari is unusual enough to be genuinely likeable as the child eager to please his father, but when it’s finally time for him to come into his own the film falls flat.

Thanks to a slow-burning, low key first half, like Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in Se7en, Santa Clause’s killer-credentials are established before he even sets foot on screen, breeding terror in the audience. But disappointingly this carefully crafted character never gets his ‘head in a box’ pay off as the film leaps into an unexpectedly high gear for the finale. The Hollywood ending, complete with helicopter chase, is at odds with the quiet build-up that precedes it.

Despite there being too many naked old men and too few women in a village with so many children, Rare Exports is still a rare beast. It’s a Christmas film that isn’t too schmaltzy but still has a heart. It’s just a shame it’s still beating at the end of it. One thing is for sure, you’ll never look at a naked old man in the same way again.


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Cindy AsteDecember 15th 2010.

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