The Finnish “Rare Exports” has been building up some great word of mouth on the festival circuit as a sure fire cult hit, thanks in no small part to an outlandish plot based around the always fun theme of an evil Santa Claus. Directed by Jalmari Helander and drawn from his popular shorts “Rare Exports, Inc.” and “Rare Exports, Inc. — Safety Instructions”, the film marks his feature length debut, quite surprisingly, given the assurance and playfulness with which he handles a wacked out premise which in other hands could easily have slipped into mere spoofery or cold hearted weirdness. Instead, the film is a modern kid’s adventure classic, very much in the mid 1980s style, offering full blooded thrills, fun and danger in a wonderfully imaginative manner which harks back to classic Spielberg and the likes of “The Goonies”.
Set just before Christmas, way up North in the Finnish Arctic, the film opens with a mysterious expedition from the US beginning an excavation on a mountain in the hopes of finding the original Santa Claus, who needless to say was far from being the rosy cheeked lovable old man that the world has come to know him as. Troubled by the thought of his impending release is a young lad called Pietari (Onni Tommila), who lives with his father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila) at their reindeer slaughterhouse home. Although no one heeds Pietari’s warnings, soon enough strange things are happening to the nearby small community, with a herd of reindeer being found torn to pieces in the snow. After a weird old man (Peeter Jakobi) is caught in one of his father’s wolf traps and the local children all go missing, he rallies his father and his friends to take up arms against their impending yuletide doom.
Since most films these days even partly aimed at a younger audience either tend to be stupefyingly patronising affairs or filled with tiresome, supposedly humorous winks to adult viewers, “Rare Exports” really comes as a delightful breath of fresh air. Jalmari Helander manages to get pretty much everything right, making the film equally suitable for children or adults by serving up borderline lunatic escapades with a commendably straight face. As a result, the film at times benefits hugely from a real sense of danger, thanks also to a handful of reasonably gory and visceral scenes early on. Certainly, the film is likely to be pretty scary stuff for younger viewers, with the captive old man being a creepy and menacing figure who looks as if he would be far more likely to eat the young boy rather than give him a present and a pat on the head. This also means that the film never feels much like the usual kind of saccharine Christmas themed fare that only gets wheeled out once a year, and is more enjoyable in a much wider sense, playing its seasonal setting for suitable atmospherics rather than cheap gimmickry.
Helander’s direction is excellent, and he keeps the film tense and exciting, with it rattling along at a fast pace and only clocking in at an admirably austere 77 minutes. Although the film is frequently very funny, this to a large extent is due to the utter seriousness of his approach, with his deadpan handling of the inherently ridiculous scenario making for a great deal of amusement. However, although the film does intelligently poke fun at some of the conventions of the genre, this is married with an honest attempt to entertain, and it works brilliantly both as a highly creative thriller and as a piece of hilarious near-parody. This does push it into some fairly hysterical territory, with its elves being naked, shabby looking old men – something which makes for a quite astounding and unforgettable sight when they are herded through the snow en masse.
The film also benefits hugely from some excellent production values and location shooting, having been lensed in gorgeous Arctic Norway. The film boasts some truly stunning landscapes, along with some surprisingly good special effects, which are wisely used and which stand up to comparison with most Hollywood efforts, even during its more grandiose and explosive moments. The action is fittingly underscored by an excellent soundtrack, which like the script seems to have been composed very knowingly, rising and swelling quite alarmingly at times and setting the pulse racing whilst effectively highlighting just how lovably daft the whole film is.
“Rare Exports” really is one of the very few films to attain this kind of near perfect balance, being hilarious, thrilling, frightening and awe-inspiring all in the same breath. Sadly, the only thing standing in the way of its yuletide world box office domination may be the fact that it is subtitled – though such is its quality and the sheer amount of crazed, exuberant fun that the talented Jalmari Helander delivers, that it may well be able to overcome even this notoriously difficult hurdle to deserved mass consumption and adoration.
Jalmari Helander (director) / Jalmari Helander, Juuso Helander (screenplay)
CAST: Tommi Korpela … Amimo
Per Christian Ellefsen … Riley
Jorma Tommila … Rauno
Jonathan Hutchings … Greene
Peeter Jakobi … Santa
Onni Tommila … Pietari