Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Finland (2010) Dir. Jalmari Helander
During the build up to Christmas in the Korvatunturi mountains, a group of excavators have been hired by a scientist to dig up what is said to be a very special burial ground. At the same time a frozen grave is discovered the local reindeer start to go missing, as do electrical devices from homes and lastly, the local children. Only one child, Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila) remains free and he has an idea just who the inhabitant of the grave is and how to stop him.
From Finland, the home of Santa Claus, comes this rather different take on the festive season movie by flipping the folklore of the jolly white haired, long bearded fat guy in a red suit on its head, for what is a subversive and creepy horror yarn. If there was ever a Christmas film to ensure kids never stop believing in Santa – for better or worse – then this is it.
In this film, the hero is quite unsurprisingly Pietari, the obligatory runt of the litter who gets little good grace from his best friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) or his own father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) for his continuing belief in Santa Claus and other childish pursuits. Having read up on Scandinavian folklore, Pietari learns that Santa isn’t a pleasant, altruistic avuncular saint after all, rather a vicious demon who prefers to punish the bad kids rather than treat the good kids.
Having been frozen in ice and buried deep underground his elves have returned to resurrect him. The body of a wizened old man with a long white beard is discovered but suddenly awakens and reacts violently, especially when he sees Pietari, the last remaining child in the village. Kontio believes this old man is one of the diggers and contacts them to demand a ransom for his return. Unfortunately this man is one of the elves – one of many and they are not happy.
Clocking in at eighty minutes there is a lot of build up and sadly a rushed climax for what is quite a fun and deliciously dark antidote to the usual trite Christmas affairs trotted out to make us feel all warm and festive inside. The idea of Santa not being the paragon of kindness and giving is a wonderful device to base this film around and while we don’t see the physical manifestation of this demonic interpretation, the anxiety and suspense of his arrival is still played with the same naivety had the story stuck to the same old conventions. Pietari has an advent calendar which instead of opening new doors, he adds another staple to door 24 to stop whatever is behind it from being revealed. This actually becomes important later on.
For the most part, Pietari is either being mocked by Juuso for being a little kid or ignored by his single parent father for the same reasons, not listening to the one sane voice in the whole area. After a slow start the tension builds with the discovery of dead reindeer and other animals while Pietari’s own personal explorations produce scarier results.
Director Helander presents everything as a horror film with a loose Christmas theme rather than a bona fide slice of seasonal cinema, which is key to the impact it makes on the viewer. He times his scares with precision and teases us with some nifty editing to keep us on edge, using the vast wintry landscapes and cold, foreboding atmosphere to great effect. There is little onscreen violence but just knowing it happened is chilling enough.
As suggested earlier the climax is a little underwhelming through being rushed but Helander at least makes it look good to lessen the blow of disappointment. The post climax scenes are delivered with a huge helping of black comedy and satirical intent which nicely wraps up the whole proceedings to restore order to the familiar fables concerning Santa.
It’s as close as you’re going to get to a feel good ending under the circumstances, thankfully free of the vomit inducing, saccharine heavy sentiment they could have foisted upon us, emulating the worst Hollywood excesses for this genre of film. In fact, a film like this could never be made in Hollywood in the first place, so score one for Finland and their brave and inventive film industry.
With its high production values, gorgeous cinematography of the Finnish landscapes and solid acting performances, especially from young Onni Tommila, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is the anti-Christmas film that doesn’t bring a dampener to the holiday period, instead it spices it up with a nice twist in its tale. If you love traditional Christmas films stay away. Want a short, sharp subversive treat? This is your film.