In the mountains of Finland, a survey team are about to dig up something secret, something which will change the face of Christmas forever.
Following on from director Jalmari Helander’s acclaimed shorts, Rare Exports Inc and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions, comes this debut feature length effort.
Living in a remote Finnish mountain village, young Pietari uncovers the truth about Santa Claus in a horrific, yet darkly comic fashion. Buried for hundreds of years beneath the ice is the real St Nick, and he isn’t a kindly old man. At once a re-examination and a clever deconstruction of the Santa Claus myth, Rare Exports also functions extremely well as the type of otherworldly fantasy Christmas adventure film which, for my money, has been missing over the last few years.
First things first, though, this is definitely not a little kids film. There is a level of dark horror and violence, coupled with a few well placed swear words, which puts me more in mind of a del Toro piece, rather than, say, Santa Claus: The Movie. However, having said that, it is wonderfully bizarre, with a sense of foreboding and wonder which older kids will definitely love. So, if you are in charge of one of theses kids, use your discretion on letting them see it!
Now for the positives. The tone of the film is excellently judged, with the total isolation and helplessness of the village set up extremely well. When dark forces are unleashed, you know there is no possibility of help arriving anytime soon, and it is definitely up to the few characters on display to save the day.
Of these, Pietari and his father are central, and it is their relationship which is at the heart of the film, both story-wise and thematically. Bereft of a tender motherly figure (for reasons unexplained, but subtly touched upon), Pietari instead must obey his gruff father, who is unable to properly express the wealth of love he feels for his son.
In return, Pietari feels he is a disappointment to his father, and at the same time is desperate to prove himself a man in his father’s eyes. All of this is shown in a few scenes based at the homestead, and it is a relationship which grows throughout the film, leading to organic and natural actions taken by the pair as events reach their conclusion.
The few supporting characters are also given their fair share of action and moments, especially the Santa Claus-impersonating, sunglass-wearing Piiparinen, who, in the course of the film, has his ear bitten off and flies a helicopter, as well as helps to chop up a body. Equally as important to events are young Juuso and his father, who act as a counterpoint to the main father/son relationship.
As mentioned above, Rare Exports is, indeed, a Santa Claus movie, but one which seeks to reclaim the myth for both Finland and those who reject the commercialism of the modern day festive season. It re-examines his roots as a terrifying figure that would punish children rather than reward them, and in the director’s words, seeks to explore just why “children still seem to be afraid of Santa Claus and wait for him with anxiety”. He looms over the film like a shadowy threat, lurking in a national psyche as something half remembered, and half feared, despite the Coca-Cola-inspired love for him.
When Santa is finally introduced, it is as a suitably grubby and creepy character, an alien figure in an alien environment, which, while obviously malevolent, is familiar enough to our childhood memories that we expect him to come good. The fact that events, in fact, pan out in a completely different manner to what we have been led to believe just adds to the fun at guessing the true nature of Santa. It is a tremendous bait and switch which I won’t spoil here.
However, it is not all perfect. The film feels far too neatly wrapped up at the end, and at no point during the climax did I feel the characters were truly in danger as before. There are also a few scenes of poorly judged CGI which detract somewhat, but all in all, these are minor nitpicks in what is a tremendous 80s style dark fantasy.
There were also a few points where I thought the plot defied logic with certain characters’ actions/skills, but then you catch yourself and realise you’re watching a film about a monstrous Santa terrorising a small Finnish community! And any film which has a scene involving a small child being charged at by hundreds of naked old men can’t be judged too harshly with questions of logic.
So, if you are looking for a Christmas film with a difference this year, then you really can’t do better then this little beauty. Weird and demented, it will leave you scratching your head (especially at the wonderfully left field ending!) but feeling oddly Christmassy. You will however, be terrified at what may be coming down your chimney this year…
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