★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
You better watch out. You better not cry… Santa Claus is coming to town.
Directed by Jalmari Helander.
Forget jolly ol’ St. Nicholas and his occasional business partner, Krampus. One of the oldest Yuletide spirits hails from the Lapland region of Finland. The Sámi people who lived there long ago called him Joulupukki (meaning “Yule goat”) and he came around to punish, not give presents.
According to legend, Joulupukki was a literal giant with huge horns on his head. He’d show up wearing a fresh goat-hide coat with the bloody side out and wouldn’t think twice about just randomly eating someone so their blood could keep him warm.
Joulupukki had a bunch of sinister little helpers who listened to the minds of children from their headquarters — hidden caves in Mount Korvatunturi — in order to rat out the naughty ones to Joulupukki. In some stories, these helpers took a more active roll; snatching the naughty children from their beds, stuffing them into sacks, and delivering them to Joulupukki for punishment.
And if that doesn’t sound like the foundation for the perfect Christmas movie, I don’t know what does.
Rare Exports begins with an excavation site atop that mountain of legend, Mount Korvatunturi. An eccentric billionaire is convinced that the mountain is, in fact, the largest burial mound in the world and he’s going to be the one to open it… and rob it.
Little does he know, two kids have snuck onto the dig site and are watching him give his speech. Pietari [Onni Tommila; Big Game (2014)] is the younger of the two; he still believes in Santa Claus and, having grown up with the legend of Joulupukki, is concerned that nothing good can come from this excavation. Juuso [Ilmari Järvenpää] is a bit older and, consequently, much more “sophisticated” than Pietari. He thinks his young friend is being ridiculous.
When bad things happen to the reindeer herd — the lifeblood of the small Finnish village — Pietari’s father, Rauno [Jorma Tommila; Big Game (2014)], and two other ranchers are convinced that the excavation activity is responsible. But when they check out the site itself, all they find is an abandoned site and a giant hole in the ground.
While the ranchers try to figure out what they’re going to do now with no source of income, a series of bizarre occurances in town have them all wondering what’s going on. Well, all but little Pietari who’s convinced he knows who… or what… is to blame.
Writer/director Jalmari Helander based Rare Exports on two of his earlier, award winning short films: Rare Exports Inc. (2003) and The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions (2005). Both of which he wrote with his brother, Juuso Helander, and the practice paid off.
Rare Exports is a bit of a slow starter, but not in a bad way. For one, it lets you get used to reading the subtitles since most of the dialog is in Finnish. And for two, the slow build-up gives the movie a chance to introduce the viewer to the frozen northlands of Finland, where the living can be hard and the loss of a livestock herd can mean bankruptcy and starvation. For most of us, it’s a different world with different customs so the pacing of the movie is perfect.
Once things begin picking up, it’s like a snowball rolling downhill. The film expertly swings full-on into horror/comedy mode and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Not that it’s particularly horrific. The R-rating Rare Exports received in the States had more to do with some brief nudity than over-the-top gore. And, before you get all excited, the nudity was a bunch of old men. Not that naked old men aren’t horrifying. I’m just sayin’.
With a budget of about $2 million, this would be considered a low-budget film, but it doesn’t show. If anything, the budget could explain the small cast of main characters, but it certainly didn’t seem to affect production values. Special effects are reasonable, cinematography is wonderful (although, you’d really have to work to make the snow covered landscapes look bad), and sound quality is consistently good throughout.
The story is where Rare Exports truly shines. Incorporating ancient mythology into a modern setting is far from a new idea, but the Helander brothers weave everything together exceptionally well. Dialog is spot on, props are convincing, and the characters excel at making you believe that they believe.
The movie is funny, charming, and absolutely one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time. I re-watch it every year and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for something fun this holiday season.