Review: “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” (2010)

Santa gets wrapped up in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Just this morning I came out of my local deli to see a large, round man with a big white beard pass a little girl and her mother on the street. The little girl turned to watch him walk by, her mouth open wide in wonder, and it was clear what she was thinking: “Was that Santa Claus?”

It’s the time of year when children see Santa everywhere. But if the new Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale had anything to say about it, this little girl wouldn’t have been bright-eyed at the thought of bumping into the jolly old elf.

Hell – she’d have been running for dear fucking life.

This holiday season, Rare Exports drops down our chimneys (in limited release starting December 3rd) with this irresistibly deranged premise: Santa Claus is real, he’s been unearthed after being buried for centuries … and he is PISSED. (Check out the trailer.)

An unexpectedly glossy action/comedy/horror hybrid from a part of the world not widely known for its marquee-ready film fare, Rare Exports is a wonderfully dark fable gussied up in its best Christmas sweater. At its heart is Pietari (Onni Tommila, who looks like a tiny, male Bjork), a little boy who lives in the shadow of the Korvatunturi Mountains with his reindeer-hunter father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila, who can rock a beard and a pair of longjohns like nobody’s business).

Times are clearly tough for folks living a relatively simple life in this rural area, and the fact that Russians atop a nearby peak are excavating large chunks of the mountain and scaring off all the reindeer isn’t helping matters.

Oh, and also they’ve dug up Santa Claus.

Himself the elf?

Yes, the real Santa Claus. Not the Hallmark-ready jolly old elf with the pot-belly and matching red ensemble, mind you – this guy is far older, far meaner, and far larger … and he apparently doles out more than lumps of coal to “naughty” types. It seems that centuries ago, some enterprising villagers trapped the child-punishing demon, encased him in ice, and built a mountain around him to ensure that he’d never be set free. But like something out of a yuletide Bond film, the Russians came along and fouled everything up.

Pietari and his pal sneak across the border and catch wind of the Santa discovery, but since they aren’t supposed to be there, Pietari can’t tell his father what he knows. So instead the terrified little guy goes about preparing for the monster’s arrival, which involves booby-trapping the house and strapping padding onto his ass in preparation for the birch-branch whipping or cauldron-bath he knows is on the way.

Onni Tommila as Pietari

Pietari’s Home Alone antics are cute, but there’s a deep sense of despair underpinning the comedy here. When the annual reindeer drive goes bust due to mysterious circumstances, Rauno finds himself facing a financial crisis – not exactly the kind of thing he wants to burden his kid with on Christmas. (There’s no Mrs. Rauno – or any women of any kind on the mountain, from what I could tell – to speak of.) So when the pair find what appears to be Santa Claus himself in one of their illegal wolf traps, he hatches a plan to sell him back to the Russians and save his family.

Weird? Youbetcha.

But also rather charming, clever, and at times jaw-in-lap unexpected. As the mystery surrounding the exhumed Father Christmas deepened (involving missing children, stolen appliances, and a few hundred naked old men along the way), I was reminded of everything from King Kong to The Thing to Pan’s Labyrinth to those goofy old Rankin and Bass Christmas specials. A strange mix, but one that somehow works thanks to the scrappy, can-do spirit of Rauno and Pietari in the face of the overwhelming preposterousness of it all.

Jorma and Onni Tommila

While this isn’t a true horror movie (there’s no gore or onscreen carnage), it does boast its share of creepy moments and startling imagery – while it’s probably fine for older kids, it may have the scarring effect that many people of my generation still stuffer from seeing Gremlins a year or two too early. (I know I still can’t listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear” without reaching for a large kitchen knife.)

My only complaint about the movie is actually the title, which relates directly to the movie’s ending, which I found to be its weakest element. I realize that this film grew out of a few short films that focused on what would become the resolution of the main narrative (I won’t give it away, in case you haven’t seen them), but the story of Rauno and Pietari is so engaging that the ending feels a little offhand. And with a title as cryptic as Rare Exports, I wonder if a lot of folks who would enjoy this weird little holiday treat might not take notice, which would be a shame.

The Christmas movie canon has been hurting for some solid new additions of late, and Rare Exports should fit in nicely among Silent Night, Deadly Night, Black Christmas, Gremlins, Bad Santa and the rest of the elves. If you’re up for a Christmas treat that balances heart, thrills, and a proudly unhinged sense of humor, better watch out to see if it’s coming to a theater near you.


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is Rated R for salty language, harm to reindeer and several hundred naked old men cavorting in the snow. It opens in limited release beginning December 3.

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