You Better Watch Out
By Michael O'Sullivan
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Like fruitcake, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" is not for everyone. A horror movie about Santa Claus? Please. Most of us want to go to bed with visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, not nightmares about dead reindeer and abducted children. But for anyone who can look a little askance at the monster that contemporary Christmas has become, this artfully made Finnish tale is — I kid you not — a real treat.
Set in northern Finland a few days before Christmas, Jalmari Helander’s film centers on Pietari (Onni Tommila), an adorable kid who has suddenly taken it into his head that Santa is out to get him. Guess what? He’s right.
Jumpy and watchful, Pietari has reason to start dressing in hockey pads and a helmet everywhere he goes, slinging a brand new hunting rifle over his shoulder. That bear trap he’s set out under the chimney of the house he shares with his widowed father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila)? A very good idea.
On a nearby mountaintop, it seems, employees of a mysterious multinational corporation have unearthed an ancient burial site — it's always an ancient burial site, isn’t it? — and are preparing to remove its cryogenically preserved occupant. He's old and he's cold, but he's not the jolly man in red we think of at Christmastime.
Although subtitles refer to this undead Kris Kringle as "Santa" throughout the film, the name the Finns use for him is "Joulupukki" ("Yule Goat"). In today’s Finland, Joulupukki is almost indistinguishable from what one of Pietari’s friends calls the “Coca-Cola Santa Claus” of American lore. But the Joulupukki of hoary Scandinavian legend was a demonic, horned goat-man who would make the rounds at Christmastime, not carrying presents, but carrying off — and even torturing — naughty kids.
The premise of “Rare Exports” may seem a little silly, but it’s based on solidly researched folklore.
Okay, so it’s not exactly a documentary.
One of many darkly hilarious scenes shows Pietari and his father passing a plate of gingerbread cookies back and forth as they sit in silent contemplation before one of Joulupukki’s evil elves — who has been captured, trussed up and is swinging harmlessly from the meat hook of Rauno’s butcher shop — and figure out what to do with their quarry. (Yes, a small army of Santa’s little helpers has also been dug up, and they're just as nasty as their boss.) Gingerbread figures prominently again later when it appears to act like catnip to the zombie hordes of defrosted elves.
There are plenty of laughs here, but what works about "Rare Exports" is less its humor than its deadpan telling. Rather than playing up the camp, it takes the myth and runs with it, keeping as straight a face as it can. That makes for a movie that’s as genuinely scary as it is funny, with moments that will make you jump and others that will make you laugh out loud.
It’s also a smart, handsome film, with solid performances all around, particularly from the Tommilas, who are father and son in real life and who have the kind of chemistry you can’t fake.
"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale"” is that rarest of gifts: The kind that surprises, and in a good way.
Contains gore, nudity and obscenity. In Finnish and English with subtitles.