Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Certificate: 15
Running time: 84 mins
Director: Jalmari Helander
Starring:  Jorma Tommila, Peeter Jakobi, Onni Tommila, Joanthan Hutchings
Genre: Action/Comedy/Horror
Format: DVD
Country: Finland/Norway/France/Sweden

Deep in the Korvatunturi mountains a group of Finnish miners have excavated something that will change not just their beliefs but their lives as they know it.  The trailer for Rare Exports was one that was met with genuine excitement as it looked to capture an interesting and original premise at the heart of it’s story and deliver it in a way that was typically Scandinavian in it’s humour.

Rauno Kontio (Jorma Tommila) and his crew have unearthed a mystery nearly 500 metres down in the Korvatunturi mountains before all the reindeers mysteriously die and the children go missing.  It’s only when Rauno’s son Pietari (played by actual son Onni) discovers a book detailing the Santa legend that the arrival of a bearded old man take on a sense of menace.  Like most alternative Christmas films Rare Exports establishes the groundwork for the story in the origins of the Christmas period and the (well understood notion) that over time Santa Claus, Christmas and the rituals surrounding him have been sanitised for public consumption.  This is done rather well, the montage sequence of Pietari reading, shots of illustrations of Santa making Christmas stew (out of children) and the magically festive score by Juri & Miska Seppa with undertones of the best of Danny Elfman.  It all ties together to create a darkly rich setting that’s oddly in keeping with the festive spirit…sort of.

Onni Tommila (Pietari) is fantastic, not only is the best child performer in the film but he holds more than his own with all the adults in the film and carries the evil Santa narrative on his little shoulders extraordinarily easy.  The scenes in which Pietari tries and fails to get his fathers attention when Juuso’s son goes missing is a scene specific to the Christmas movie (as children typically know more than their adult counterparts) is frustrating and heart felt.  The fact that father and son are actually father and son gives the scene a little something extra and helps with the establishment of a realistic world that the film needs.  Jorma Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa (Juuso) and Per Christian Ellefsen (Riley) are all very good also.  The fact that these three men are bearded and a little rough around the edges helps sell the movie.  There are moments of camaraderie that are genuine and extremely well played but their performances are hampered by two dimensional characterisation that could have really been fleshed out with an additional draft.  It’s difficult to understand sometimes why when screenwriters are working on scripts that put their main characters in peril why they don’t consider the fact that we need to care about the characters for the peril to work.  The casting of Jonathan Hutchings (as Brian Greene) is probably the best thing about the film.  As the unquantifiable Claus he’s extremely terrifying by simply doing nothing and adds a level of suspense to the film that it needed greatly.  It only improves when you realise not who he is but what he is.

Cinematically the film is gorgeous.  It has all of the richness in colour that it’s European rival Saint contains but with an extra something as it can’t help but pass a nod towards John Carpenter’s The Thing.  It’s impressive that a film can create a genuine feeling of claustrophobia in a wide open range in the middle of Lapland and credit belongs Mika Orasmaa (who’s work on next years Nazi sci-fi Iron Sky looks simply beautiful).

This is, unfortunately, where the praise ends.  Jalmari Helander (writer and director) is an experienced creative force who has worked predominantly in short films which explains almost everything that’s wrong with the film.  Rare Exports lacks any real suspense or terror beyond the initial premise as it doesn’t have a second act and therefore is seriously lacking in the classical idea of a narrative triadic structure.  When it’s established that Santa Claus is a kidnapper and eater of children this is an opportunity for the film makers to change gear and ramp up the tension and the claustrophobia that comes from the isolation of the region.  Where The Thing excels not just in creating claustrophobia but also the idea of a predator meticulously picking off members of the crew, Rare Exports only really threatens characters we have never really met and therefore don’t care about.  The revelation that their hostage is in fact not Santa and that Santa is a lot greater in stature than the mythology indicates is the perfect opportunity to unleash him and push the killer Claus element of the narrative forward.  Rare Exports is pitching itself as a monster movie but we are never actually shown the monster.  Imagine Troll Hunter without the troll, Godzilla never being seen or Jaws without the great white popping out of the water and you’d be right on course for the level of disappointment you’ll experience.  The film then jumps to the third act of the structure to restoring order but the order was never properly been disturbed and rather than feeling glad that the protagonists have survived it feels more like they’ve been the antagonists of the piece having detonated explosives in an expansive part of the region and “resolved” a problem that never really existed.  The entire film is one tone, flat and uninvolved.  It’s a thriller lacking any thrills, a horror without any moments of horror and missing an entire hours worth of conflict to justify the ending of the film. 

Rare Exports looks extremely well, the trailer promises the most enjoyable and alternative Christmas film but is thoroughly disappointing.  As an idea it still has a lot of promise but the film would need to be re-written by someone who understands the importance of creating conflict and drama in a narrative film and an actual revelation of everything that was promised in the opening exposition featuring Onni Tommila.  Underwhelming and disappointing are two words you don’t want associated with your Christmas or your films but are, unfortunately, the only two words needed to describe Rare Exports.


Chip Lary said...

I'm afraid I've got to strongly disagree with you on this one. In my own recent review I gave it four stars out of five. I noted that I had read negative comments regarding the ending because people were watching the film expecting to see a lot more carnage than they got, so they ended up disappointed. I sensed the same thing from this review.

I watched the movie expecting a comedy, not a horror movie, so I was very happy with it, especially the ending. The scene with the horns had me laughing for minutes. (Maybe I appreciated it more because I grew up in a hunting culture.)

The key thing for people to understand about the movie is that it is not a horror movie, so they should not expect to see the standard things that come in most horror movies.

John Baxter said...

No I understand, my problem isn't that it's not a horror but rather it's not anything. I had to check the DVD players clock to make sure it hadn't skipped several chapters as it felt as though the film wrapped itself up before anything of merit actually occurred. I noticed that its a project the director has been working on for a while and I think those labours of love can become more about finally completing it than delivering something that has a purpose. I had hoped to love it as its a life that would be right up my street but I didn't feel involved at all after the initial exposition. Always good to have a proper conversation about film and I think any film that can evoke conversation is worthwhile so for that reason I'm glad I watched it. The worst thing about any film is to be passive in reaction afterwards even if you hate a film at least that's a reaction. Thanks for commenting its always reassuring to know you're not talking to yourself.

John Baxter said...

More than anything though I can't see it as a comedy as visually and narratively it adheres to the codes and conventions of the horror/thriller genre. I think Saint performed the horror/comedy genre balance a lot better

H A R R Y G O A Z said...

Have a SUPER week !

Chip Lary said...

John, I saw it as a comedy even before I saw the movie, because the whole concept was comedic to me: Santa Claus is really an ancient wild creature who gets trapped and sold. It's like back in the 80s when Twins was coming out. All you had to do was say "Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito are twins" and people would laugh.

I am sometimes greatly influenced by my expectations for a movie. If they are too high I can be more easily disappointed and if they are too low I can be pleasantly surprised. I was expecting a comedy and got it, while you (and others - see comments on the IMDB message board for this movie) were expecting a horror/slasher movie and were disappointed.

John Baxter said...

My expectations were born out of the codes and conventions that the film was operating within the film. Without going into spoiler land I think regardless of genre there was an act of the triadic structure missing.

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