[3 December 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s all become so slick and commercialized. While the religious ilk argue over vague illusions and a lack of core respect and Madison Avenue keeps pumping out the shop till you drop symbols, stores keep selling on the false premise that the only good holiday season is a mindless, materialistic one. That’s right - it’s that time of year again. A illogical reason to be jolly, a proposed promise of peace on Earth that never, ever finds a willing or wanting audience. In between the sugar plums and the nutcrackers, the figgy pudding and the blighted, bedecked halls, we are supposed to find joy, comfort, and some semblance of familial unity. No wonder Dickens’ classic anti-Christmas curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge was so full of ‘humbug.’
Enter Rare Exports, a beguiling broadside of everything the supposed yuletide stands for. Part post-modern allegory, part stripped back Grimm fairytale (with just a hint of frozen tundra folklore on the side), it is a the perfect anecdote for anyone sick of Coca-Cola’s homogenized hokum. Based on the equally inventive short films created by Finnish director Jalmari Helander, this 80 minute gem is like that dulling dose of Alka Seltzer you require after a night of too much gingerbread and egg nog. It’s a poultice, a sedative to all those insincere salutations and extended credit crunching. Oh - and it’s a sinister little horror film to boot.
It’s a mere 24 days until Christmas, and all is not quiet in this remote part of Northern Scandinavia. As the local reindeer farmers prepare for the coming slaughter - and the accompanying wolf packs - young boys Pietari and Juuso are intrigued by the construction going on atop their local mountain. Seems an American drilling concern has struck something unusual deep beneath the rock, and they are Hellbent on digging it up. Three weeks later and it’s Christmas Eve. It’s also the day of the big reindeer round-up…except, that there are no animals to corral. Seems that the entire herd has been gutted by something brutish and bloodthirsty. While the men blame the surrounding wildlife, Pietari knows better. He’s been studying up, and he believes this is the work of Santa Claus - NO! Not the corporate Kris Kringle. The true Santa, an evil entity with a desire to punish all naughty children in ways no cloying carol ever considered.
Rare Exports is the best unholy Christmas creation ever. Better than Scrooged. Better than Futurama‘s artillery totting robotic Claus. It’s the perfect combination of old world superstition and new age satire. Buried in between the torn apart animal carcasses, musty slaughterhouses, homemade wolf traps, and sparse, Spartan living condition is still a child’s vivid imagination - only this time, the visions aren’t of candy and kindness, but of a horned demon with elf-like minions that may or may not resemble anorexic old men. Rare Exports wants to argue that the real meaning of Santa was always as an underage cautionary tale, a coal in the stocking vs. presents by the fire kind of behavioral modification. Helander illustrates this early on, showing old tomes filled with images of children being boiled in oil, torn to pieces - and perhaps most disturbingly - spanked until their bones turn to dust.
Now, the notion of jolly old St. Nicholas being somewhat closer to Satan in kinship has guided many a modern horror film. Everything from Christmas Evil to Silent Night, Deadly Night has tried to tap into the dire, depressing undercurrent that is prevalent at this time of year, and yet none have done so as expertly as Rare Exports. This is the kind of clever, subversion effort that gives you faith in the medium, that renew your hope in a slightly less silly and cloying holiday experience. Helander handles the material with a brilliant combination of whimsy and the wicked, keeping us locked in the lost world of this boy and his fabled fears. Using unsettling images, sly suggestion, and a last act reveal that’s well worth the effort, Rare Exports aims high and manages magnificently.
Only a foreign film could come up with something this anarchic and authentic. We believe in every moment of this misguided folk tale, never once questioning how Kris Kringle became a creepy child killer with evil on his demonic mind. The Finnish customs with their bearded machismo are equally supportive, adding a level of local legend and fallacy that’s striking in its impact. Of course, Helander’s visualization will be questioned since we never really “see” Santa, and the ending does borrow liberally from the typical Tinseltown blockbuster. But the beauty of Rare Exports is that it all comes together in a successful destabilizing of its core subject. Helander wants to see Santa as something malevolent, and the movie definitely deliver on this sentiment.
As for the horror angle - well, it’s more creepy than scary. Inference plays a big role in the beginning, bare footsteps found in the snow outside a child’s window. The movie also tosses elements at us without initial explanation: the discovery of sawdust during the dig; the American boss’ giddy delight at the discovery; the pointed sticks precariously poised within the wolf pit; the sudden disappearance of a whole barn full of potato…sacks. Eventually, everything does gel, unanswered quandaries settling in to provide a panoramic view of the holidays truly gone to Hell. But Helander is careful to bring back the light, so to speak, wrapping up everything in a bow-topped package reminiscent of a Spielberg-ian boy’s adventure tale.
So grab all those trees filled with tinsel and toss them on the fire. Break those silver bells and stomp on Frosty’s meaningless magic hat. If you’ve dreamed of telling Suzy Snowflake and those mischievous imps Hardrock, Coco, and Joe to take a hike, Rare Exports is the film for you. It’s wonderfully ingenious, thoroughly contemporary, and basted in the baneful squeals of a million disappointed kiddies. It easily takes its place among the many attempted revisions of the 25 December tradition. Some will think it silly or purposefully abrasive. Others will dismiss it as borderline blasphemous. But for those who’ve had their fill of this often joyless seasonal space, Rare Exports is a revelation. It’s guaranteed to turn your candy coated X-mas dreams into equally delicious nightmares.