Directed by: Jalmari Helander
Production Company: Cinet, Pomor Films
Starring: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila
Release Date: December 3, 2010
Runtime: 84 minutes.
So apparently, hundreds of years ago in Finland, the Sami, a nomadic tribe of reindeer herders had to imprison Santa Claus in an immense block of ice in order to get him to stop murdering children for fun. They then took this block of ice and buried it on what is now the border between Finland and Russia, encasing it in a 65-foot thick layer of wood shavings to keep it from melting, where he has remained for the last several hundred years waiting for someone to free him and awaken his ravenous hunger for children and gingerbread once more. This is the original Santa, by the way, who was apparently about 25-30 feet tall and had long, curved horns- our Santa myths come from the fact that he used to carry big sacks on his back and keep track of which children were naughty and which ones were nice. The naughty ones didn’t get a lump of coal in their stocking, but rather abducted in the middle of the night and replaced with a creepy rough-hewn wooden effigy, which their parents would find in the bed the next morning. Then they were taken back to Santa’s lair and devoured.
This is the premise of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a wonderfully twisted Christmas tale directed by Jalmari Helander, in his first feature film, and produced in a joint venture between production companies in Norway, Finland, and France. It is an expansion of themes explored in two short films; Rare Imports, Inc. (2003), and Rare Imports: The Safety Instructions (2005). Don’t worry if you aren’t getting the significance of the title- it won’t make sense until the very end of the movie (unless you’ve seen the shorts, both of which are available on YouTube).
The movie begins with an American scientific team excavating at Korvatunturi Mountain just on the Russian side of the Russia-Finland border. They claim to be conducting seismic testing, but we soon find out that they are in fact looking for a “sacred grave”, and believe the mountain to be the “largest burial mound in the world”. Under a strict deadline (the must be done before Christmas Eve, of course), they begin accelerating the excavation process with high explosives.
This effects the small community living nearby, on the Finland side of the border, who rely on the local reindeer population for their livelihood. They soon find that the entire herd has been slaughtered and eaten, they believe by wolves driven into a frenzy by the explosions. The only one who knows the truth is a young boy named Pietari (played by Onni Tommila) who discovers the ancient legend of the “original” Santa whose tomb is at the center of the mountain, and realized that the re-awakened Santa is not jolly at all, just cranky and hungry after his centuries-long nap. Strangely enough, no one seems to believe him, until he and his father capture a dirty, terrifying, and naked old man in the pit trap they rigged up to catch the wolves…
The filmmakers play this wonderful concept to the hilt, with a lot of very dark, very funny scenes that may warp your holiday memories forever. For example, Santa’s disturbing, ravenous little “helpers”, or the “elves” as they are dubbed, who have a weakness for gingerbread. And ears. Or when Pietari’s father, Rauno (played by Pietari’s real-life father, Jorma Tommila) nearly loses his arm stoking the fire because Pietari put a bear trap under the chimney. This movie is cheeky, twisted fun from beginning to end.
Strangely enough, there is actually a poignant family story buried at the heart of all this, subtle and sad. Rauno’s treatment of his son is rough and cold, much like the brutal land they live in, where even the children have to go armed with hunting rifles to protect the herd (and themselves) from predators. But there is an additional coldness there as well, with Pietari’s mother’s unspoken absence feeling like a raw hole in their family. As stoic and uncaring as Rauno seems at first, he is doing his best to keep the family’s head above water and turn his son into the kind of man he has to be to survive in their harsh world. Jorma Tommila’s performance in this regard is one of the dramatic highlights of the film.
Beyond that, it is just pure darkly disturbing fun. It is also based at least in some part on real Nordic myth; according to Finnish folklore, Korvantunturi mountain is the real-life location of Father Christmas’ secret workshop, where he makes the presents for all the good boys and girls, which are then wrapped by gnomes. Letters to Father Christmas in that region of the world are all addressed to “99999 Korvantunturi”. This, along with all the reindeer, seem to be one of the main sources of our modern Santa myths.
Combine this with the local traditions concerning the Krampus, the horned, long-tongued devil companion to Saint Nicholas who punishes naughty children by beating them with switches and rusty chains, boiling them in oil, and then dragging them off to hell, and you have Rare Exports. All in all it makes you realize how much more disturbing and interesting the folklore of Europe is compared to ours. In America, all we have are a giant named after a foot wart and his big blue Ox, and a guy with a pot on his head who plants apple trees. We kind of got hosed on the folklore front. At least the Native American folklore such as the Wendigo, La Llorona, a Chupacabra are still fun.
All in all, this was only mildly creepy, but very fun and very original, with an absolutely killer ending. Between this and the equally fantastic Let the Right One In, from Sweden, it seems that the Nords and Swedes are the ones to keep your eye on for innovative, interesting, and fun takes on traditional horror (and on weird-looking little kids in their skivvies). Of course there are some minor plot holes (why, exactly, were the American scientists looking to dig up Santa in time for Christmas) and some somewhat cheesy special effects (and what more would you expect, really), but in the end this film is so charming and unique that it more than makes up for any shortcomings you might come up with. Without a doubt this is one of my new favorite Christmas movies of all time, sure to top my annual “must watch” Christmas movie list. So sit back, throw another bear trap on the fire, and get ready to learn the REAL meaning of Christmas.