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DIRECTED BY: Jalmari Helander
FEATURING: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Jonathan Hutchings
PLOT: On the Finnish/Russian border, an excavation crew disturbs an evil that has been buried for centuries—the real Santa Claus!
COMMENTS: Set in a chilly Lapland that’s eerily devoid of women (the fairer sex are, apparently, even rarer than Santa Claus), Rare Exports is a slow-burn horror marketed as a black comedy. It wears its coat of absurdity lightly, taking its outré premise about a monstrous Christmas spirit with, if not utmost seriousness, at least the same amount of gravitas that you’d expect from a B-movie about summoning a standard-issue Hollywood demon. It always helps an enterprise like this when you can get a good performance from a child actor. Young Pietari, whose father requires him to close his eyes when he enters the slaughterhouse so he won’t be traumatized by reindeer corpses, starts off still believing in a benevolent gift-giving Santa. The boy grows into (naturally) the only one who recognizes the danger posed by Santa, and eventually into the savior of his small village. Dressed for much of the movie in improvised armor—a hockey helmet and shoulderpads—young Onni Tommila, alternately quizzical and confident, outshines the older actors, who all play rustic stoics.
Despite a surprising amount of geriatric nudity, Rare Exports is not really a weird movie—but it was an original one when it was released in 2010. Aside from the similarly-themed but little-seen Santa’s Slay (2005), previous Christmas horrors had been almost exclusively slasher flicks about madmen obsessed with Santa Claus who dressed up like the jolly old elf for their killing sprees. Rare Exports instead identified Santa himself as evil—recalling his legendary Finnish origins as Joulupukki, the “Yule Goat.” This movie inspired other horror filmmakers to research the darker side of Yuletide legends, leading to the rediscovery of Krampus and a series of competing films about the Christmas devil. In other words, Rare Exports launched a sub-genre (the demonic Christmas spirit) inside a sub-genre (the holiday-themed horror).
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale derives from two short films from the same director, and serves as a sort of prequel. The shorts are presented as instructional videos, and are more obviously in the black comedy rather than the horror vein. Not to get too deep into spoiler territory, but the shorts suggest “Father Christmases” are a separate, feral species, without acknowledging the single demigod known as “Santa Claus.” The mythos described by the shorts is weirder than that in the feature, and the two don’t seem entirely compatible. In fact, the ending of the feature doesn’t make as much sense independently without seeing the shorts; for most of the film, we are asked to accept on faith the notion that possession of the original Santa Claus would be worth a lot of money, without a sense of how he could be commercially exploited. For my money, the universe of the shorts is superior—the problem being that it’s too much of a one-joke a premise to support an entire movie, which is why the expanded version leans into horror rather than comedy. For the best experience, watch the shorts and the feature in tandem for two different takes on the same basic idea. If you’re the kind of person who liked the Grinch better before his heart grew three sizes, Rare Exports may become a holiday staple at your house. It beats the 200th screening of the usual chestnuts, at least.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“You know a child is going to have a skewed concept of Christmas when his father works processing reindeer carcasses in a commercial butchery setup out in the garage. But that’s only the beginning of the yuletide weirdness in Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander’s dark-comic expansion on his cult Internet shorts, in which he crafts a back story for Santa that’s as black as stocking coal.”–Tom Russo, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Paul Singleton,” who dubbed it “an excellent movie and very strange to say the least. This one will be certified weird by you guys at some point.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)