Written and Directed by: Jalmari Helmander
Starring: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila
December has just begun, shopping center Santas have been on the job and radio stations have been playing Boney M. medleys for well over a month so it can mean only one thing: the Christmas season has begun. So, to commemorate the beginning of the most insufferable, tacky, gaudy and depressing time of the whole year, I dedided to watch Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. This is the feature-length prequel that Helander released after his Rare Exports short films were so successful.
The Rare Exports short films offered a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the world of the Father Christmas trade, specifically a group of men who hunted wild Father Christmases which they then domesticate, and mail them to malls around the world. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale tells the story of Pietari (Onni Tommila), a young boy who, along with his friend Jusso (Ilmäri Järvenpää), sneaks onto the top of a nearby hill to spy on a British mining company that is working there. Pietari almost immediately figures out that Santa Claus is buried in that mountain and the miners are going to uncover him. Pietari goes home and begins to research the history of Santa Claus, learning that the legend of Santa began as the story of a deranged, bearded man who kidnapped and tortured children who misbehaved. He begins to grow more anxious about the threat of Santa’s impending freedom, worsened by the fact that his father will not pay attention to his ramblings about Santa. His father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila) is a reindeer hunter and a pig butcher, and soon, Rauno and his hunter friends realize that Pietari was not making his story up.
With Rare Exports Helander has crafted a sharp, funny and entertaining horror film. The characters are interesting, and they don’t really subscribe to tropes; the father is tough but he also wears an apron as he bakes ginger bread for his son, and the boy is innocent and unnoticed but he also carries a shotgun (a real shotgun!) slung over his shoulder all the time. Helander’s direction is stylish and effective; his images are terrifying and surprisingly tender, exceeding the expectations of usual low-budget digital photography. Rare Exports is a scant 84 minutes, but in that time Helander is somehow able to construct all the necessary emotional depth required to believe the history between Pietari and Rauno (and you do believe it) but all the while he slowly builds a believable atmosphere out of the absurd conceit that Santa and his demonic elves are terrorizing children in the Finnish hills. Scenes with Santa’s superhuman, nonagenarian elves are terrifying and packed with potential, and the scenes in which Pietari takes charge are triumphant. Something feels so seasoned in Helander’s direction of this film and Rare Exports is so impressive as a debut feature.