Crooked Marquee’s New Christmas Canon: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

This week, we’ll be focusing our posts on holiday movies, including several that we feel are worth putting into your holiday viewing rotation this year. Follow along here.

‘Twas the summer of 2010 (July 9, to be precise), and this Finnish-born writer was seated inside a multiplex in Helsinki, waiting for Predators to start. The trailers were, for the most part, the usual pedestrian fare, advertising whichever vaguely high-profile horror movies were coming out in the second half of the year. And then there was one that stood out, with an old man chained in mid-air inside a building and a group of recognizably Finnish dudes looking at him, before one of them sent a message to an unidentified listener: “We have Santa Claus.”

That was the teaser for Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, which, as luck would have it, I ended up seeing at the Locarno Film Festival less than a month later, as part of the event’s open-air Piazza Grande line-up (naturally, it was a midnight screening). Helander subsequently went (somewhat) international with 2014’s Big Game (Samuel L. Jackson’s POTUS gets stranded in the Finnish wilderness) and this year’s Sisu (a lone Finn fights an entire Nazi battalion as they try to escape to Norway), but there’s something especially pure about his decidedly homegrown feature debut. 

Based on two shorts Helander originally made for the commercials production company Woodpecker Film, Rare Exports is set in Lapland, where a British-American research team discovers what appears to be an ancient burial ground, devised to keep something, or someone, trapped deep underground. This is observed by local boy Pietari (Onni Tommila, the director’s nephew, also seen in Big Game), whose father Rauno (Jorma Tommila, Onni’s real-life dad and star of the aforementioned Sisu) also has to deal with a mysterious creature attacking the reindeer. 

This all connects to the legend of Joulupukki, which literally translates as “the Christmas goat.” An inspiration for what later became Santa Claus (who is, in fact, still commonly known as Joulupukki in Finland to this day, with similar-sounding variations in parts of the neighboring Scandinavian territories), this character is actually far removed from the holly, jolly man who brings presents to children all over the world. As the name suggests, it’s a humanoid creature with goat-like features, and according to local folklore – which has been exaggerated for horror and comedy purposes within the film – it enjoys feasting on naughty children. 

While there is a warm underbelly, embodied by the younger Tommila’s performance as a boy who still believes in the magic of Christmas (similar, in that sense, to the girl in Violent Night, currently playing in theaters and also directed by a Nordic filmmaker), Rare Exports does revel in the opportunity to put a darker spin on the Santa myth. And unlike, say, Krampus, which tried to have its cake and eat it too by never quite settling on a dominant tone, this Yuletide bonanza goes all out – sometimes literally, as in a scene where Mr. Claus is full frontal (amusingly, while the movie got an inevitable R rating in the US for nudity and a bunch of subtitled profanity, the Finnish ratings board gave it a very relaxed 13 certificate because, per their standards, nothing happens that kids could feasibly imitate in the real world). 

People get mutilated and killed, stuff blows up, and the Christmas spirit is fairly twisted as Helander gleefully sends up festive images within the structure of a slightly edgier than usual coming-of-age story (the ultimate juxtaposition is when Rauno utters the phrase “Have a peaceful Christmas” in the midst of absolute mayhem). It is very much the kind of movie no major Hollywood studio would ever bankroll, fearing it might alienate more traditionally inclined viewers (for all its glorious holiday mayhem, Violent Night still goes out of its way to confirm that Santa is a fundamentally nice guy who likes bringing joy to children). Helander knows this, and pokes fun at this mentality by having Americans and Brits as the nominal villains of the piece, still trying to find a way to exploit what they’ve found even though no U.S. kids would dare go near this particular incarnation of the Christmas icon. 

Twelve years on, it’s lost none of its irreverent charm, and would make for an ideal double bill with another violent festive classic: Die Hard. Yes, the latter is a Christmas movie, and right after watching Hans Gruber fall to his death, you can travel to where the legend was born and enjoy a different take on everyone’s favorite bearer of gifts. Just make sure the kids aren’t on the naughty list…

“Rare Exports” is streaming on Hulu, Kanopy, and several ad-based streaming services.

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