Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

By Michael T. Dennis

The long, varied history of holiday movies takes an unexpected turn with “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” a film that brings the magic of Santa Claus and an Alpine wonderland setting together with the dark qualities of a horror feature. The result is shockingly effective, and not without a dose of holiday sweetness.
Pietari is a young boy living with his father in northern Finland, above the Arctic circle. The family business is a small reindeer slaughterhouse. (This alone should provide an adequate metaphor for the mash-up that's to come.)
The countdown to Christmas is also a countdown to the annual reindeer roundup, where the herdsmen turn a year's worth of work into profits. But this year there's a problem, as mysterious blasting at a nearby mountain has driven wolves into the area, decimating the herds.
The blasting, it turns out, is part of a corporate scheme to unearth the long-hidden grave of a demonic Santa Claus. Pietari finds out the truth and, when no one will listen to him, decides to take action. His football helmet and hockey pad getup, complemented by a real, working shotgun, makes him an object of ridicule, but when Christmas Eve comes, he's the only child left standing.
Amid disappearing children and a rash of home burglaries, Pietari's father catches an old man with a long, white beard in his homemade wolf trap. He takes the man to his cavernous slaughterhouse where the standoff that follows is more akin to “Reservoir Dogs” than “Miracle on 34th Street.”
It's not until the end of “Rare Exports” that we see the truth behind Santa, which is significantly more horrible than what we've been led to expect, and certainly more than a posse of reindeer herders can handle.
“Rare Exports” may have a plot that seems impossibly comic, but the presentation is that of a horror picture. The cherubic Pietari, played by Onni Tommila, gives us an entry point into a world that becomes absurd very quickly. Meanwhile the stark Nordic setting plays to a sharp realism that informs us there will be no enchanted sleigh bells or talking snowmen to save the day.
It's easy to take the film as readymade camp, a thing to be laughed at without waiting to earn so-bad-it's-good status through years of obscurity or notoriety. Indeed, it would be right at home on the bill of a midnight screening for any Saturday in December. But “Rare Exports” has enough layers to stand up to a more critical reading as well.
Its lethal rendering of Santa recalls a deep series of mythologies, including modern France's Pere Fouettard (the whipping father, a counterpoint to the gift-giving Pere Noel) and pagan Christmas demons like the Krampus. As he waits in dread for the arrival of Christmas Eve, Pietari learns all about the efforts by greeting card companies and Coca-Cola to divest Santa of his more malevolent qualities, replacing his devil horns with a red cap and his propensity for dispatching children to Hell with more mild occasional gifts of coal.
What might be missing from “Rare Exports” is an awareness of holiday cinema, a field ripe for parody. The only association that's hard to avoid is with Tim Burton's “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” mostly due to that film's Halloween-infusion of Christmas tropes. “Rare Exports” is more dedicated to being scary and less respectful of Yuletide tradition.
“Rare Exports” is the product of prolific Finnish director Jalmari Helander, in a coproduction of several Northern European production companies. Despite a lack of any major effects sequences or the gore that saturates contemporary American horror narratives, “Rare Exports” is a very polished film with the look of an expensive production. It gets its thrills the old-fashioned way: earning them by building tension and giving us likeable characters to pin our hopes for survival on.
An odd sort of happy ending, which comes as an epilogue to the action-filled climax, assures us that “Rare Exports” is thoroughly a Christmas movie. It might not be appropriate for anyone young enough to believe in the jolly version of Santa, but for those among us who can readily draw up an image of an ancient, mythical demon, even during the happiest of seasons, “Rare Exports” offers a chance to think about where our traditions come from while having fun at the movies.
Pietari—Onni Tommila
Riley—Per Christian Elefsen
Santa—Peeter Jakobi
Amimo—Tommi Korpela
Rauno—Jorma Tommila
Greene—Jonathan Hutchings
Sheriff—Risto Salmi
Agnès b. Productions, Cinet, Davaj Film, FilmCamp, Filmpool Nord, Love Streams Productions, Pomor Film, and Yleisradio
Distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures
Directed by Jalmari Helander
Written by Jalmari Helander and Juuso Helander
Producers, AnnaBjörk, François-Xavier Frantz, Petri Jokiranta, and Knut Skoglund
Original Music, Juri Seppä
Cinematographer, Mika Orasmaa
Editor, Kimmo Taavila
Production Design, Torunn Anfinsen and Liv Ask