25 Days of Christmas: ‘Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale’ balances scares with whimsy

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Throughout the month of December, TV Editor Kate Kulzick and Film Editor Ricky D will review classic Christmas adaptions, posting a total of 13 each, one a day, until the 25th of December.

The catch: They will swap roles as Rick takes on reviews of television Christmas specials and Kate takes on Christmas movies. Today is day 12.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2008)

Written and Directed by Jalmari Helander

What’s it about?

10 year old Pietari lives near the Russian border, where a dig has unearthed something ominous warranting very strange safety protocols- no swearing, no smoking… Pietari does his research and plans for the worst- Santa Claus is coming to town.

Review

Perhaps the single most universal aspect of Christmas in popular culture is the look of wide-eyed delight and wonder in a child’s eyes at the prospect of Christmas, presents, and, most of all, Santa Claus. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale turns this on its head, taking its inspiration from some of the oldest legends of the Jolly Old Elf which, in Finland, makes for something far darker than the image Coca-Cola’s been selling. Wisely, the film approaches this story through the eyes of young Pietari, and though the middle of the film focuses on the adults, its closing setpiece, and Pietari’s significance to it, makes Rare Exports a Christmas companion to The Goonies and a more sinister partner to Miracle on 34th Street.

Based on writer/director Jalmari Helander’s 2003 short film Rare Exports Inc., the full-length version makes good use of its 84-minute running time. Part of what makes it succeed in its longer form is Helander’s decision to shift gears several times through the film. After starting as a suspense film, it transitions to horror, action, and finally to comedy. Not every genre is executed equally well, and the closing comedic beats don’t necessarily mesh with the earlier scares, but the turn from creeping dread to escapist triumph allows for a fun, wish-fulfillment ending that puts the film securely back into Pietari’s perspective and cements it as more of a kids movie, at least tonally, than many may expect, particularly considering its R rating (for nudity and violence).

Helander does an excellent job establishing the mood early on, focusing on the stillness and isolation of the landscape. He also trusts his actors, leaving plenty of silence, allowing their performances to carry several sequences. Onni Tommila is particularly strong as Pietari. One of the most challenging things to convey compellingly onscreen is thinking- Tommila has several such scenes, as Pietari feverishly researches the original legends of Santa, as well as a few later moments as he hatches his victory plan, and he carries them all well.

The whole cast works well together, capturing the hard people of this small community, particularly the relationship between Pietari and his father Rauno, played by Onni’s actual father, Jorma Tommila. Helander leaves their exact backstory unstated, but everything we need to know is in their body language and their quiet tradition of Christmas gingerbread. Peeter Jakobi is creepiness personified as the ominous being stalking Pietari and the largest threat remains wisely offscreen. The little CGI used isn’t 100% seamless, but it works given the tone and focus of the film. When Pietari puts together his plan and starts barking orders, all eyes are on this mini John McClane, and any flaws in his helicopter ride can be overlooked.

This is a fun and scary, yet light-hearted film for the whole family (though parents may disagree, depending on their thoughts on brief shots of full male nudity and their child’s nightmare threshold). It’s well paced and a nice alternative for the many who favor non-sentimental Christmas films.

How Christmassy is it?

It’s a movie about Santa. On the Christmas movie scale (1=Brazil, 5=A Christmas Story), this gets a 5.

You May Like It If…

You like self-aware action tales (ie, Hot Fuzz) or Santa as a less-than-jolly old elf.

Final thoughts:

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is an entertaining diversion for fans of light horror.

Kate Kulzick

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