Deep in the Korvatunturi Mountains of Lapland a shadowy corporation has begun to excavate a site once sacred to the indigenous Sami people. Precocious kid Pietari (Onni Tommila), having defied his father’s wishes and broken into the dig encampment, learns a startling secret.
Father Christmas exists but he’s not the kindly corpulent codger we’re all familiar with, rather he’s a sadistic child-snatching daemon more interested in the naughty than the nice. The mountain upon which the miners are working is fact a giant burial mound, designed to keep the beast trapped within an icy prison. With Christmas Day fast approaching and something wicked loosed from the excavation pit it’s up to mild mannered Pietari to convince the adults that Santa Claus is real and very much dangerous.
“Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” sees director Jalmari Helander build upon the “demonic Santa” premise of his similarly titled series of short films from 2003 and realise a macabre yet flawed Yuletide vision. The first thing to strike you is its charming nostalgic vibe. Helander is aware of the common convention that made those fantastical child-centric adventure films of the '80s so enjoyable, the subverting of traditional power dynamics between kids and grownups. This is an adventure movie as shot circa 1985. It’s got a bit of grit underneath its nails unlike the derivative sanitised tosh produced nowadays for younger audiences. If you’ve grown up with the likes of “The Goonies” and have lamented the fact that Hollywood doesn’t seem to make those deliciously dark live-action children’s movies of yore, you’ll feel right at home with “Rare Exports”.
Young Omni Tommila puts in a blinder of a performance as our diminutive protagonist. He makes for an endearing sight, shambling around in the snow trying to wield a shotgun as large as he is small. Somewhat too sweet and innocent for the rough reindeer-hunting community he’s been born into, Pietari is striving to prove his manfulness and earn his father Rauno’s (Jorma Tomilla) approval. Their relationship is the emotional core of the movie, both touching and believable. Turns from the supporting cast are uniformly solid whilst the film possesses a visual sheen that belies its humble origins. For a modestly budgeted feature “Rare Exports” is an exceptionally handsome film and features some decent and sparingly used CGI.
However despite the originality and irreverence of Helander’s film there’s just something missing, and that my friends is the pay-off. We have a well crafted build up of tension as the anti-Santa mythos is established and things begin to go awry for our hunters but when the narrative finally kicks into gear the action is over all too soon.
Following an introductory sequence that sees Pietari immersing himself in lore relating to the old daemon, poring over old tomes featuring bloodcurdling depictions of Santy torturing wayward youngsters, you’d expect at least some grisliness to permeate the proceedings.
In actuality “Rare Exports” is disappointingly tame. Helander’s has seen fit to reinvent Santa’s little helpers as stark naked crepuscular old men, shying away from a bit of splatter yet embracing flailing geriatric phalli. Couple the failure of the guardian elves to deliver any palpable sense of peril with the fact that there’s no great reveal of the ice-encased beast and you’ve got a flick that promises much but ultimately fails to deliver. The audience’s desire for some evil elf vs. shotgun-wielding hunter action left wholly unsatiated. Compound this with a saggy middle act as the first emaciated elf is discovered and you’ve got a film that drags in spite of its brisk 84 minute runtime.
It’s refreshingly askew take on Father Christmas notwithstanding; “Rare Exports” is insufficiently gruesome for adults while at the same time containing too much saggy genitalia as to be accessible ratings-wise for the tweens. Just who then is it for? The heartfelt father-son bonding motif at the flick’s core is at odds with elements such as the elves paedo aesthetic and their Gestapo style re-education in the final reel. Our narrative frequently dips its toes into the deep end of dark without ever fully taking the plunge.
Although conceptually bold and technically accomplished, Helander’s slice of Christmas gothic is marred by jarring tonal inconsistencies and hamstrung by a short, unevenly paced running length that sees the credits roll just as it seems to have hit its stride. “Rare Exports” punches above its weight in many aspects but never quite delivers the knock-out blow.