Fantasia Fest 2011: 'Rare Exports' Review


The first paragraph is where I often like to talk about originality in horror films: how it's important but not required if a film has other assets in its corner; how a familiar concept can often be enlivened by some strong performances, a novel tone, or something modestly cool of some sort.

But I say screw that approach this time around: I've seen a great little genre import that is all sorts of unique, fresh, novel, and unpredictable. And, truth be told, discovering something truly unexpected is a lot more exciting than making fair-minded allowances for half-decent horror flicks that, let's be fair, don't always try that hard in the screenplay department. Such is most assuredly not the case with Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a wonderfully strange concoction of dry comedy, weird horror, and Christmas-related craziness.

Long story short, and without spoiling anything: a group of excavaters have discovered something buried deep inside a Finnish mountain. Something red, allegedly jolly, and frequently remanded to the realm of childish folklore. Yes, it's the actual Santa Claus ... and this one has some truly warped ideas regarding naughty and nice. Santa's re-awakening is preceded by some unpleasant surprises, including a freakish reindeer massacre and the arrival of some nasty, ancient "elves." 

To its inestimable credit, Rare Exports delivers its tale through the eyes of a strange but lovable young boy (Onna Tommila) who, of course, takes note of the evil presence well before anyone else. Little Pietari has a loving but gruff dad (played exceedingly well by Onna's real-life papa), a few unpleasant friends, an overactive imagination, and more than enough tenacity to dig through the frigid yuletide mysteries.

Based only on the one film, it seems obvious that Mr. Helander is a big fan of the best of the 1980s big-budget genre flicks; you'll find traces of Carpenter, Spielberg and Dante scattered across the offbeat movie. Dark comedy collides (somehow smoothly) with creepy concepts and legitimate warmth, resulting in a consistently tasty genre stew that was clearly created with a lot of care and affection. Helander presents his (mostly) grown-up fable with frequent dashes of humor (both earnest and dark), colorful splashes of unexpectedly cool spectacle, and a story that somehow manages to balance warmth, horror and humor into one strange -- but undeniably tasty -- little dish.

So while American audiences may have to work just a bit harder to get through the Scandinavian Christmas traditions that are quite a bit different than ours, a movie like Rare Exports is absolutely worth a little extra effort. Eventually somebody will come along and try to American-ize this great little movie, so for now just focus on the original. It's as special as it is strange.