He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good…if you want to stay alive. In Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, director Jalmari Helander takes the roots of Father Christmas from his native Finnish lore and clashes them against the modern day “Coca-cola” version of Santa Claus. The result is a darkly humored tale that fits perfectly in line with such anti-Christmas classics as Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale follows young Pietari (Onni Tommila), his father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) and their fellow reindeer-herders as they attempt to discover the source of a mass die off of the herd. When they seek reparations from a nearby scientific excavation, they find more than they bargained for in the form of a bloodthirsty, child-stealing Santa Claus. They try to ransom him off to the researchers only to discover their situation is more dire than they could have imagined. Hit the jump for my review.
While you might write this off as just another B-movie, let me rattle off some awards first: 2010 Winner of Best Film at the Sitges Catalonian Film Festival, 2010 Winner of Variety Piazza Grande Award at the Locarno Film Festival, multiple nominations and wins for 2011 Jussi Awards and a nomination for the 2011 Saturn Award for Best International Film. If that’s not enough to get you interested, perhaps Jingle All the Way is more your style.
The contemporary Nordic setting that’s so fitting for horror movies these days (Let the Right One In, Dead Snow) is a perfect backdrop for Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, not only in mood but in mythology as well. The tagline for the movie is “From the land of the original Father Christmas.” This is a nod to the Finnish legend of Joulupukki, translated as the Yule Goat, a hideous horned creature that used to demand presents and frighten children at Christmas time. (Overtime, this legend morphed into the current day Santa Claus.) He was reported to live in Korvatunturi, a mountain in the northern regions of Finnish Lapland. It’s at this very mountain that the story of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale begins.
Twenty-four days before Christmas, we meet two American researchers, Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen) and Brian Greene (Jonathan Hutchings). Mr. Greene is running a drilling operation atop Korvatunturi to provide core samples for Riley. Riley is encouraged by the findings of sawdust and wood shavings deep under the earth, a noted way to pack something preserved in ice. Riley announces to his crew that they are on the verge of unearthing the largest burial mound in history, one that would “rival the ancient pyramids.”
Meanwhile, Pietari and his friend Juuso (Ilmari Jarvenpaa) are eavesdropping from behind crates of explosives. Pietari’s overactive imagination, accompanied by piles of books on Father Christmas folklore, leads him to believe that the researchers are trying to unearth Santa Claus. While neither his friend nor his father believes him, Pietari knows that the creature buried in the mountain is not kindly old Saint Nick. “Coca-cola Santa Claus was a hoax,” he says, pointing to his book’s images of Father Christmas boiling kids in a pot. Cut to 1 day before Christmas (which is the shortest wait for a kid ever. Too bad Pietari really doesn’t want Christmas to get here.)
After torturing himself for weeks with the impending release of the child-stealing Santa Claus, Pietari is forced to join his father on the round-up of the reindeer. Along with his father and Juuso, he’s joined by his father’s friends Aimo (Tommi Korpela) and Piiparinen (Rauno Juvonen). They discover that 198 head of reindeer have been slaughtered in the field, worth roughly $85,000. While the adults blame wolves and plan to seek reparations from the scientific research station on the mountain, Pietari discovers a human footprint near the bloody bodies of the reindeer.
As Christmas dawns, things really start to get interesting. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale has excellent moments of dark humor, as when Pietari’s father is almost injured by a bear trap Pietari put in the chimney to catch a descending Santa Claus. The family’s wolf trap outside, however, has caught something else entirely. They pull a naked old man (Peeter Jakobi) out of the pit and attempt to butcher the body to dispose of it. The problem: the man is still alive. With some prodding from Pietari and a radio call from the American researcher Riley, the crew learn they have captured Santa Claus.
After dressing the man up in a contemporary Santa suit and caging him up, they load him into their pickup and attempt to sell him back to make up for the loss of their herd. When they arrive at the research station, Riley informs them that they don’t have Santa Claus, but one of his elves. This was the moment where the movie got really interesting to me, because up until that point, I thought the trailer had revealed all of the surprises. Turns out, Santa’s elves are a bunch of dirty, old, naked bearded men who are insanely violent, have a penchant for stuffing kids into sacks and have a weakness for gingerbread cookies. I’ll never look at Christmas the same way.
The biggest reveal of the movie comes when the heroes of our story stumble upon the real Santa Claus, still incased in a massive tomb of ice and surrounded by kidnapped kids in potato sacks. His helpers have stolen household items from the town to generate heat to melt the ice (stoves, radiators, hair dryers, etc). All we see of the Joulupukki are two massive horns curling out from the block of ice. Although the last act of the film has Pietari finally standing up and taking charge of the situation, along with a fantastic helicopter scene, we never get to see the Joulupukki in all his glory. The only real flaw I found in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale was the fact that they deprived me of the opportunity to see our heroes defeat Santa Claus man-to-myth.
The last few minutes of the film are easily the funniest of the entire 84-minute run. With their master disposed of in a spectacular fashion, the dirty old man “elves” have nothing to do. Enter: Rare Exports, a company run by Pietari, his father and friends to rehabilitate these so-called “Father Christmases” to ship Americanized Santa Clauses to all the countries of the world. It’s a fantastic montage that pays homage to the original Rare Exports, Inc short that spawned the movie and also to the overall theme, that we are so used to the commercial versions of our myths that we often forget their pagan roots.
While Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale does not have the level of gore of Dead Snow or the emotional impact of Let the Right One In (although Pietari does earn his father’s respect in the end), it’s a uniquely entertaining tale that adds a bit of welcome darkness to the often saccharine times leading up to Christmas. If you like movies like the ones mentioned above, do yourself a favor and put Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale on your gift list this year. If you’ve been good, the Yule Goat might just put it in your stocking.
Rare Exports, Inc. – Short Films
Rare Exports, Inc (2003) 8 minute
- A mockumentary short about expert hunters in Lapland that track and capture the “Kings of the Forest,” creatures known as Father Christmases.
- “Known as the most precious, free-roaming wild beasts, specimens such as these can tear apart a full-grown bear.”
- This short started it all and includes the rehabilitation program seen at the end of the feature length film.
Rare Exports, Inc – Safety Instructions (2005) 10 minute
- A pejoratively instructional video to an import crew that did not follow the instructions set down by the Rare Exports company (alas, due to their ineptitude, these men are now bloody smears on the docks)
- Rules of Conduct: No Loud Noises, Always Behave, Do Not Smoke, Do Not Drink Alcohol, Do Not Curse
- The short shows what will happen to you if you violate these rules in the presence of even a rehabilitated Father Christmas
Making of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
- Footage from rehearsals, shooting and post-production in Norway
- Footage from the premiere at the Locarno Film Festival
“Blood in the Snow” – A Look at the Concept Art
- Concept art as compared to the live-shot scenes
Animatics and Computer Effects Comparison
- Shot for shot comparisons of the helicopter flight and the herding of the elves
- Photos from behind-the-scenes
Original Finnish Trailer
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
- A cult-classic that is #78 of IMDb’s Bottom 100 with a rating of 2.3
- Plot involves Martians kidnapping Santa Claus to bring joy to the children of Mars
- Stars a young Pia Zadora in her first role
From Oscilloscope Laboratories, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale was written by Jalmari Helander, Juuso Helander, Petri Jokiranta and Sami Parkkinen. The 82 minute, Rated R, Blu-ray is presented in 1080p High Definition at a 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround and Stereo in English and Finnish with optional English subtitles