In the depths of the Korvatunturi mountains, 486 metres deep, lies the closest ever guarded secret of Christmas. The time has come to dig it up. This Christmas everyone will believe in Santa Claus.
Providing the most persuasive argument thus far as to why little children have every reason to be scared of Santa Claus, Jalmari Helander's charmingly creepy Rare Exports has a lot of fun reimagining for the modern horror audience the centuries-old Yuletide folklore of its homeland. Before Santa became a jolly, fat shopping centre fixture, he was an evil spirit who stole naughty children away in their sleep and tortured them to death. Merry Christmas, Finland-style!
Serving as a prequel-of-sorts to the concepts he introduced in his online films (which began as seasonal gifts for his production company's clients before graduating to 'viral phenomena’ status), Helander's feature-length exploration of his tight, imaginative originals has not made for an altogether more rewarding movie experience. Nor, despite some well-crafted visual moments, has it indicated that he will become the next big thing in genre filmmaking. It has confirmed, however, that his ingenious premise – the melding of a Santa borne of dark legend with the modern world and all its cynicism and hopelessness – is a very effective (and easily marketable) one.
As with most Christmas tales, Rare Exports is told from a child's point of view. Pietara (a wise-beyond-his-years Onni Tommila) and his slightly older friend, Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) watch as a foreign mining team prepare to unearth a mysterious find from deep within the Korvatunturi mountains, situated in the region of Lapland on the Finland/Russia border. Pietara is convinced that the frozen relic is somehow related to the footprints he is finding in the snow outside his window every morning and may be the evil Christmas demon of Finnish folklore.
His father Rauno (Jorma Tommilla), a struggling butcher and single parent who is barely providing the finances or love Pietara needs, has little patience for his son's fanciful notions. That is, until a grotesquely aged and mortally wounded man becomes caught in their wolf trap. Strapped to a blood-stained carving table in Rauno's slaughterhouse, the gaunt stranger begins to show signs of life any time that Pietara walks near, and soon he has lifted his frail frame from the table, first crouching on the cold floor then into an imposing upright position. Could Pietara have been right? Is this the mythical, murderous spirit of Santa Claus, regaining the strength and will to carry out his homicidal duties on the children of the town?
The first and second acts of Helander's debut film are great fun, spinning effortlessly from funny (Pietara’s home-made Santa armour) to frightening (the discovery of bundled-twig children where the living used to sleep). A tangibly terrifying villain is introduced in the form of a naked, wiry Peeter Jakobi whose sly, wordless performance as the evil Santa is supremely icky. Rauno and his friends Piiparenen (Rauno Juvonen) and Amimo (Tommi Korpela) have great chemistry, whether engaging in a battle of wills with their silent captive or contemplating how to exploit what may be the greatest discovery of modern history (they figure the secret is worth about $85,000); and Pietara's slow-burn revelations as to the fate of the other children of the village compounds the tension and giddy thrills the premise exudes.
It is in the unconvincing climax that Helander appears to lose control of his film. He oddly subverts his own conceit and manages to sully the very essence of all that has been so convincingly unnerving. Some ambitious but underdone effects work and an overstated tweeness culminates in a final reel twist that dangles too much in front of audience expectations then fails to follow through. The big bang pay-off is ok to watch, but character subtleties and tummy-tightening suspense have all but vanished by the credit roll.
Fortunately, Helander's has generated plenty of goodwill by that stage and his contributors are at the top of their game. The picturesque cinematography by Mika Orasmaa creates a palpable sense of tension, despite the wide open vistas. One senses there is something threatening around every mountain; that despite the vastness of the landscape there is no place to hide (an asset it shares with John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, which is referenced on several occasions). And make-up artist Salla Mantymaa has worked wonders with her full body transformation of the evil Santa.
If it’s not quite the Christmas cracker of a horror outing the pre-release buzz suggests it may have been, Rare Exports will still prove particularly effective as Boxing Day viewing, fully exorcising the sentimental residue of the season from your system for another year.
Watch 'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale'
Saturday 24 July, 10:00pm on NITV / NOTE: No Catch-Up at SBS On Demand
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Action
Director: Jalmari Helander
Starring: Jorma Tommila, Onni Tommila, Peeter Jakobi