REVIEW: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Produced by: Petri Jokiranta
Screenplay by: Jalmari Helander
Story by: Jalmari Helander, Juuso Helander
Edited by: Kimmo Taavila
Cinematography by: Mika Orasmaa
Music by: Juri Seppä
Starring: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Rauno Juvonen, Per Christian Ellefsen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi, Jonathan Hutchings, Risto Salmi, Jens Sivertsen, Sigmund Bøe, Olav Pedersen, Nils M. Iselvmo
Based on the 2003 short film Rare Exports Inc. by Jalmari Helander and Juuso Helander
Santa Claus has largely been portrayed as being a saintly old man who travels the world delivering gifts to children on Christmas night, but that’s largely been because most productions are based on the image cultivated by American pop culture – you know, the one seen in film and on soda cans. Some films have attempted to stray from this mostly by making a point of it, incorporating some traditions while adapting and adding their own twists – Rise of the Guardians still portrayed him as a large, jolly man, but also a Russian brawler who will gleefully leap into battle with dark forces, while Arthur Christmas had Santa and his crew of elves leading a technologically advanced operation that adapted to each culture they visited, though Santa, by default, was still largely influenced by the traditional Santa. It seems like a hard thing to get away from, and it can largely become pretty stale, no matter what twist they may put on it. Rare Exports, as its name suggests, is as far from tradition as one can get from tradition without losing any semblance of who the central figure is supposed to be, though.
Taking inspiration from some of the seedier, more terrifying pagan origins of the Santa Claus myth and set in the frigid, isolating wilderness of Lapland, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale presents to us one of the most terrifying versions of Santa to ever be brought to film – a monstrous figure who targets the naughty children of the world for their misdeed and who punishes them to a most gruesome fate, perhaps even boiling them alive and consuming them. And though the film itself is set during Christmas and features a cute little boy at the center of its story, Rare Exports is unapologetically R-rated in its violence and subject matter. A supernatural version of the family-friendly Home Alone this is not.
Pietari Kontio lives with his widower father who makes a living as a butcher near the border between Finland and Russia, where a team of scientists and workers on the other side of the fence have been working to excavate something mysterious in the depths of a large mountain. Curious as to what is going on, Pietari and his older friend Juuso cross the border for a closer look, but in the process, they leave the local herd of reindeer exposed to an uncertain, bloody doom, thus guaranteeing Pietari’s father and the townfolk a bleak future. Racked with guilt and fearing the worst this coming Christmas for having kept this a secret, Pietari begins to research Santa Claus and determines that Santa may very well be the force that has been unleashed upon the town’s children, who begin to go missing, and Pietari himself may very well be the naughtiest one on Santa’s list.
Much like Kevin in Home Alone, Pietari isn’t about to take this threat hiding under the covers. Pietari, despite his age, proves to be surprisingly adept to handling the physical threat of Santa, but though his strategies are sound, he struggles with whether he should do the right thing and confess, not knowing how he could make it up to his depressive father and the rest of the town should he tell them. It’s just the right amount of personal journey for the character to keep us invested in him and the characters he connects with in a film that is otherwise filled with horror, violence, and a good dose of dark humor (not to mention the disturbing level of full frontal old man parts).
The character development is nicely interwoven into the plotting and unusual plot developments that take place. Giving away any of the bigger revelations in the film would do it a disservice, but let me just assure you that the film quickly escalates to a satisfyingly awesome, action-packed conclusion that will have you riveted and laughing along with the film at how unapologetically insane things get. Some may be disturbed by a lot of the implications throughout the film, but consider the fact that this is essentially a monster movie, and any temptation to moralize it too much should quickly dissipate. It also helps that Onni Tommila is an endearing actor as Pietari, successfully blurring the line between cute little boy who’s struggling to reconnect with his still-grieving father and being a little ass-kicker more along the lines of John McClane than the clowning Kevin McCallister. The concept itself is also well executed, reminiscent of something Guillermo Del Toro would produce, and it’s unapologetic about how dark it’s willing to become but never allowing it to become overbearing or too self-serious – this is a film about a nightmarish Santa Claus being reawaken from a frozen imprisonment and preying upon children, after all.
This film resided on my Netflix streaming queue for a while before it disappeared entirely with me never having watched it in time for Christmas. I decided to change that this year, obviously, and added it to my DVD queue instead – the arrival of which, I figured, would compel me to watch it more urgently – an assumption that worked out. I’m glad I did, because I was not disappointed. Rare Exports is an awesome alternative to the more family friendly and sweet natured films we all normally enjoy this time of year. While those films undoubtedly have their place, and I’m just as guilty of watching the same old good natured stuff year after year in the name of tradition and genuine affection, it takes a film this original and entertaining to really make you appreciate that learning the true meaning of Christmas isn’t the only thing we need to focus on every time this time of year. Sometimes a dash of badass might be just what we need to kick us out of a holiday season rut and relieve our pent up shopping stress, and now I can be happy in knowing that Die Hard isn’t the only film to turn to should that craving for the less syrupy sweet inevitably strike.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5