Joyfully, this darkly funny Finnish film was not what I was expecting at all. This is a welcome change for me; too often I spoil it for myself by devouring various film news items and reviews. And being the consumer of a large number of films, I can often guess each beat of a film (especially the more mainstream fare) from the trailers alone. So, to walk into this with no solid expectations and to then have those I did have utterly confounded… quite a delight in of itself.
So what was I expecting from this? For a start I was expecting something closer to a more traditional horror film, sort of a Silent Night, Deadly Night, but with an actual Santa Claus instead of a psycho dressed as Santa. But no. Rare Exports is smarter than that. This is closer in tone to a (very) dark Spielbergian kids action-adventure film from the 80’s; maybe something Joe Dante could’ve directed (Gremlins - soon to be added to my Catch Up Classics).
It takes the core of its story from the more traditional myths around Santa Claus, specifically the ones where Santa is a punisher and devourer of naughty children rather than some benevolent red suited old chimney climber. Certainly not the jolly red fat man from the Coca Cola commercials (as an aside: I love this sort of stuff in general; the pagan, often dark origins, of generally accepted traditions). From there it builds a cracking adventure film with genuine feelings of danger and mystery swirling around the icy, forbidding landscape.
It all kicks off with a mysterious dig on top of a mountain near the border of Finland and Russia. It is sponsored, as is cinematic law, by an eccentric millionaire with a crazy dream. This is witnessed by two local kids; one of them our hero Pietari. The dig strikes something that shouldn't be found in a mountain. Something that, if sense prevailed, should never be disturbed... But this is a movie and it's not too long before shit starts getting disturbed all over the place. Y'see, something is unleashed from that big hole in the ground. Something dark. Something frightening. Something... Christmassy. You better watch out indeed. Pietari, of course, is one of those plucky young kids who knows more about what's going on than the adults.
And a quick note on that: the relationship sketched out between Pietari and his father (a widower) is one of quiet heartbreak and struggle. The father tries his best with the running of the household, but he's not someone who has ever done this before. You also get the impression that the father never quite understood his son, as he's still a boy and his father is one of those manly men that really only understands other men. And those other men make quite the motley collection of adults that join up with Pietari.
With a film like this, tone is of paramount importance and writer/director Jalmari Helander balances it perfectly. The terrifying moments of childhood are keenly felt: from not wanting to disappoint your dad, to the fear of the dark unknown just beyond the back door. But then there are also the moments of a really great adventure; the type of adventure you have as a kid, running around in the great outdoors. And boy, are those outdoors looking amazing here. You haven't seen beautiful, snowcapped and massive mountains like this since Frodo went for a wander. However, I'm not sure if it was shot on digital as well, but it was projected digital and I'll admit: I'm an old fogey. I much prefer watching something on film. It's more than the knowledge of the physical film strip being projected; there's some unidentifiable otherness to digital.
I initially thought the end would’ve made an excellent film or 2nd Act twist in itself, and then I discovered that the whole feature acts as something of a prequel for two short films on the same theme (and keeping all of the same actors which you can find here and here). It's a fantastic Christmas tale and makes for a welcome refresher from the schmaltzy pap that generally gets churned out at this time of year (interestingly enough, I think this is the only Christmas themed release out in 2010...). Made for a budget paltry by Hollywood standards this offers up more fun, adventure and inventiveness than almost anything else this year. To be enjoyed by adults and (intelligent, maybe slightly odd) kids alike.