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Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
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by Jay Seaver

"You'd better watch out."
4 stars

"Rare Exports" appears to be the third go-round that Finnish director Jalmari Helander and his brother Juuso have had with this basic idea, with the previous iterations apparently being punchline-driven shorts. This one, on the other hand, is a horror movie that puts its Christmas theme out front-and-center. And, maybe surprisingly, it's a good one, taking a potentially jokey concept and getting legitimate thrills.

It's December, and an American company is doing excavation work in the Korvatunturi mountains just on the Russian side of the Russo-Finnish border. Whatever they're doing, it's having an effect - something has decimated the local reindeer population, which the small village on the Finnish side depends upon. Pietari (Onni Tommila), a kid who sneaked into the drill site with his friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää), thinks he knows what's up - the Americans have found the tomb of Santa Claus, who before Coca-Cola got hold of him was a monster who punished bad children until the Sami people trapped him in the ice and buried the ice under a mountain. Ridiculous, except that any number of crazy things are happening on Christmas Eve, and Pietari's father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) has caught a gaunt, feral, old man (Peeter Jakobi) in his wolf trap. Rauno, Juuso's father Aimo (Tommi Korpela), and their friend Piiparinen (Rauno Juvonen) think they can ransom this find off for the value of the reindeer, but...

The Helanders' version of Santa Claus owes as much to the Krampus as Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas, and they do a pretty fantastic job of building their mythology. Aside from amalgamating Santa and his beastly sidekick, they do a nice job of positing more sinister explanations for various other Christmas traditions, from gingerbread to strings of lights, and they do it without having to come out and say "this is why people really do this thing". It's smooth and all the more clever for it. Some bits are delightfully morbid, black comedy so dark that one might forget to laugh.

In fact, Rare Exports does a quite remarkable job of playing it straight. The kids are not wiseacre, jaded teens with a quippy response to terrifying things, but smart boys who look for trouble in the way real kids do. Although Helander and company don't revel in gory money shots, they certainly have no trouble with chilling aftermath; every time the villagers come upon the results of the mayhem, it's a bit unsettling. And when things finally start happening out in the open, it's no less thrilling - almost every time that the story offers a chance to make a joke or send a chill up one's spine, the filmmakers go for the latter, even though the joke is probably easier. The movie's action finale is a great blend of the thrills of fear and adventure, with just enough absurdity sprinkled in.

Kudos to the cast for handling it well. Onni and Jorma Tommila are, I believe, father and son in real life as well as on film, although that's no guarantee of on-screen chemistry. They do wind up working very well together - as with the other bits of backstory, everything we need to know about them is written in their interactions without having to spell it out: The recently deceased mother, Rauno's opposing urges to spare Pietari from more ugliness and to toughen him up, everything. Both have a dour air to them, although it hides a surprising bravery and rakishness when the chips are down later. The other villagers are good, too, good supporting characters who are resolute but not quite grim. And Peeter Jakobi's wordless, creepy portrayal of the captured "Santa" is fantastic.

Without giving too much away, though, I do kind of wish the end were a little different. The last act sets up the potential for a big action finale that the filmmakers likely can't afford to shoot, and the ending string of scenes seem like an attempt to be loyal to the original idea and shorts almost to a fault. It's a funny idea on its own, but not quite the end that the rest of the movie seemed to be building to.

It's forgivable, though, because it doesn't come close to undoing the thrills and excitement that came before. "Rare Exports" is undeniably quirky, but it's a quirkiness that can make people jump as much as it makes them laugh. It's a great Christmas change of pace.

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originally posted: 12/25/10 04:10:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2010 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

1/05/11 Andy I like this thriller.Its make u look at different view of Santa 4 stars
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  03-Dec-2010 (R)
  DVD: 25-Oct-2011


  DVD: 25-Oct-2011

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