by Richard von Busack
As Jean Sibelius once wrote, “once you get to the last Lapp, you’re at the Finnish line”. Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports (in limited release) is set in the land of the Sami, the Lapps’ preferred nomenclature. The characters are Finnish reindeer herders living on the border with Russia, a handful of villagers who one likes and respects for not being overcome with holiday cheerfulness. The dour actors in this anti-Christmas special provide a contrast to Robert Warshow’s complaint: “euphoria is spread over our culture like the broad smile on the face of an idiot”.
Dec 25 approaches. Rauno, an almost unemployed butcher (Jorma Tommila) and his soft-faced son Pietari (Onni Tommila, who resembles Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story) live without any acknowledge of why every woman in the 100 mile radius seems to be elsewhere, or why the locals take shotguns to bed with them.
Preparing for the Holy Night, Rauno digs a wolf pit with sharpened wooden stakes and baits it with a severed hog’s head. Then, either as an evil joke or a nod to ‘tis the seasonness, he places a red apple in the pig’s mouth. Likely, it’s his gloomy idea of Christmas merriment; there’s a depressing strand of red and green lights hanging over their compound, and there are some unappetizing burned gingerbread cookies laying around.
Young Pietari is waiting for Christmas, though with ever-growing terror. Researching the story of Santa, he found some eldritch books suggesting that the cherry-nosed butterball is a recent gloss on the real Santa: that Santa is actually an ancient H. P. Lovecraft-style horned god who lives to feast on raw reindeer, and who seeks and destroys naughty children wherever they hide.
Locally, there’s a cursed mountain that turns out to be a burial mound: “It puts even the pyramids to shame!”—and a group of pain-in-the-ass Americans are taking core samples of it. The drilling company’s head, played by an actor whose name I didn’t catch, makes one rejoice to see that the tradition of insanely flamboyant Scandinavian acting isn’t confined to Lars Von Trier movies.
Grimacing and flaring his nostrils with the power of a dozen Dwight Fryes, the bossman gets more agitated as the workers delve into the ice in the center of the mountain. He issues new safety regulations: no smoking, no swearing.
To paraphrase Saruman’s tangy line in The Fellowship of the Ring, these corporate dwarves have dug too greedily and too deep, and you know what they awoke in the darkness.
When the elf himself materializes, he’s a snaggle-toothed nude geezer resembling ‘60s movie gunslinger Lee van Cleef. And ultimately the last line of defense against the ancient evil of Santa is the smartest person in the movie, a little boy: the forewarned and forearmed Pietari is the only one who can make sure the children of the village will live to see the New Year.
Very few winter holiday classics didn’t begin as movies with little notice, a small audience and a generic title. The discerning people at Oscilloscope Laboratories picked this rare import up and I think it’ll be a bigger noise in future Christmases.
Note that it’s not a trough for the gorehounds. While there are spots of blood and violence in it, it has the tradition (as in everything from Vampyr to Drag Me To Hell) of saving the scariest mayhem for the engravings in forbidden books.
The real life father and son team have understandably fine rapport. Considering the faces we see in this film—unshaven, baleful, and always straight throughout this horror comedy—it’s a tender counterpoint when Rauno the butcher father tells his son not to look when he’s cutting up a grisly pig carcass. There’s no reproach in the dad’s voice.
For people needing a brine-flavored alternative to holiday sweetness, Rare Exports has dry humor worthy of Aki Kaurismaki’s work.
And the attack of the evil Santa is a threat anyone understands: this is a dark and ambiguous time of year.