This post was originally published on the DIDS website. Check out more reviews like this at From the Depths of DVD Hell.
Cinema Obscura - a weekly trek through the darker and frequently more random and forgotten regions of Cult, Foreign and Obscure cinema and pretty much everything in between. Each week highlighting a film worth hunting down, for those who like to wander away from the more-traveled-roads of Mainstream cinema.
This week marks a first for me, seeing how this is the first Finnish movie that I have reviewed ever, which is not too surprising as Finland isn’t exactly known for having a thriving film industry, yet it is from here the next “Alternative Christmas” Selection hails from, as Director Jalmari Helander sets out to give us a very different take on the Santa Claus myth.
Set on Christmas Eve, were a group of reindeer farmers living near the Korvatunturi mountains find their herd mysteriously slaughtered. Blaming the loss of their herd of wolves they quickly to write the mysterious deaths off while now facing no source of income. Meanwhile a young boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) suspects that something that something else might be afoot, especially as an American drilling team working in the mountains have just discovered the mythical tomb of Santa Claus.
Starting life as a short film known as “Rare Exports Inc.“ (2003) were director Jalmari Helander, shot in a faux documentary style following band of three hunters (marker, sniper and tracker) on the hunt for the wild Santa Claus. This he followed up in 2005 with the fake health and safety film “Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions“ both of which were greeted highly positively but it would seem that Helander wasn’t quite over his feral Santa obsessions, as with this film he finally expands his highly unique twist on the Santa legend into a full-length feature.
Helander’s vision of Santa is far from the jolly fat man who we all tend to think of when we here the name, but here is portrayed as a Nordic legend were Santa is a horned demon, who kidnaps naughty children and who was imprisoned in the mountains to stop his twisted ways. Still Helander plays things close to his chest throughout, as he slowly adds layers to the myth, with the reindeer first turning up dead, followed soon after by all the village radiators and children apart from Pietari mysteriously vanishing overnight, but the real mystery begins when a strange bearded and naked old man turns up in one of the wolf pits” could he be the same mythical Santa or is he something else?
Still fear not as the towns folk here are unsurprisingly a tough bunch of people, with even kids frequently shown carrying rifles, which is the lifestyle you’d expect looking at their remote living conditions, were their sole source of income come from their reindeer herds, which makes it easy to understand their plan to sell this strange old man to the American’s as a genuine Santa and Helander has done a great job of bringing to life a great cast of characters, who are genuinely interesting and believable to watch, while maintaining the same spirit of his original short films.
While it might seem like yet another Christmas horror movie, the film is actually not as horror based as it would seem and largely plays like a warped fantasy film as Helander crafts out his own mythology for the Christmas legend, while his decision to play the events from a child’s perspective only help make the myth all the more believable, something seriously helped by Pietari not being one of the usual Hollywood smart ass movie kids, but rather a more realistic character who not only has genuine fears about a killer Santa roaming the village, but also worries about his fragile bond with his father, who is largely emotionally cold to his son, spending most of his time as the unofficial head of the village and ensuring that their turn enough profit from their herds to enable them to survive, something which has clearly caused him to lose touch with his own son’s emotional needs, with this relationship in particular being one of the key plot lines as the film progresses, with Pietari clearly keen to show that he is more capable of looking after himself than his father would believe, while there is at the same time an undertone that the men in the village have to prove themselves to be men capable of contributing to the survival of the village, which Pietari has frequently failed to do with his shy and retiring nature, while all the other men are shown as tough and burly.
Santa and his naked elves (it makes sense when you watch it trust me) once again maintain strong ties to things largely associated with Christmas; hence we see them with a ravenous appetite for Gingerbread, as well as being able to smell children, while their lack of dialogue only adds a mysterious edge to them, as well as enforcing the fact that these are very primal creatures and as such perfectly suited to the barren landscape which they inhabit. Meanwhile, the drilling crew are given out leaflets encouraging them to be good and think happy thoughts while working on the dig, by their mysterious American employer, while never fully being told what it is that they are looking for.
Despite being marketed as a horror film, there isn’t much in the way of gore with most of the deaths outside of a surprise pick axe to the head happen off screen, with only brief scenes of a reindeer carcass being butchered being the closest the film gets to gore, though it is expected that to a Finnish audience these scenes wouldn't be overly shocking, much like a Korean audience would view the squid eating scene in “Oldboy”. Still, the film has nothing taken away from it, by keeping things gore-free, while perhaps missing the chance to include the always effective shots of blood on fresh snow, which was kind of disappointing, much like Santa never getting a big final reveal.
On the whole, “Rare Exports” is a very sweet natured yet twisted movie and best categorized as with the likes of “Pans Labyrinth” and “The City of Lost Children” as it took attempts to create a fantasy Christmas tale for adults, especially as the sight of rampaging naked old men, might be a little too much for most kids, let alone adults to take, while Helander still manages to pull off a surprising twist at the end, which nicely ties into his earlier shorts. Still, if you want something different to watch this Christmas as well as an interesting take on the Santa myth, I would recommend giving this one a look.