DECEMBER 24, 2010
Let's be perfectly clear - Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is not a full blown horror movie. It's a fantasy adventure at heart, but structured very much like a monster movie, and even features a few slasher-style killings (pickaxe through the head!) and some genuinely creepy moments. But it also feels like a kid's movie at times, and if not for one of the most disturbing shots in cinema history (a room full of very elderly, very naked men), it probably would have gotten a PG rating back in the pre PG-13 days.
Its first hour works best, as it unfolds sort of like Jurassic Park or something, with some guys digging up SOMETHING and we are treated to a lot of shots of "people looking" and others that slowly track in on seemingly innocuous objects. Then our heroes find a field full of slaughtered reindeer, which is quite disturbing (think the buffalo scene from Dances With Wolves, only with, like, Blitzen). And then the children of the town start disappearing, with only these creepy little wicker dolls left behind. Then, the Tom Jane-esque co-hero (his son is our main character) traps an old man in a wolf trap, one who says nothing, is naked, and has a penchant for gingerbread cookies. And he has a big white beard...
All of this stuff works great. It's clever, it's suspenseful, kind of funny (I love the running gag about gingerbread), and you're not sure where it's going to end up. It's also shot quite well; the DP finds a lot of vibrant color in an otherwise gloomy and fairly dark Finland locale. The score is also wonderful, something that sounds like a cross between Thomas Newman and Danny Elfman (alas, no score release as of yet).
However, it starts to go off the rails in its third act (spoilers ahead!), which sort of hurt the movie overall. Had it lived up to the terrific first hour, this would be top 10 of the year material, but the weak climax brings it down. Once we discover that the old man is not Santa Claus, the real Santa is "introduced", which I put in quotes because we never see him/it. All we get is a giant block of ice (and I mean giant, like, hundred feet tall/wide) with big horns sticking out. I'm all for leaving things to the imagination, but come on! This is a giant monster Santa, and you're not going to show it? Or worse, even let it loose, if even for a few minutes? Maybe it was a budgetary limitation, or they want to save something for a sequel, but the giant Santa is just a Macguffin of sorts.
No, the real "villain" and thus focus is the old man, who turns out to be an elf. Of which there are seemingly hundreds. The scenes of a few of them advancing on our heroes like old naked zombies are fun, but once Santa is removed from the picture, the movie takes a sharp turn and goes about explaining the title, which sets up what the sequel is probably going to be about (i.e. not a giant Santa monster). It's an idea that would have worked better if the movie was a period piece, because it would sort of make us rethink our own legend of Santa, but it seems to take place in the modern day. Plus, it comes after we've been denied a giant monster Santa Claus, so we're at a point where pretty much anything would be unsatisfying.
Due to the Tom Jane-esque dad, I couldn't help but wonder how a US remake would turn out. Not only do we have entirely different Christmas traditions and legends, but we're also the folks who made the Amblin films (ET, Gremlins, etc) that this often emulates. Nobody does it better than us! Again, possibly for budget reasons, but I would have liked to have seen a few more kids (our hero, who is kind of annoying at times and reminded me of Oskar from Let The Right One In, has a list of 6 friends but we only see one), and possibly a bit more with the businessman who wants to thaw Santa (in one of the film's best moments, he gives the construction crew that is digging him out a list of "safety measures" that includes "No swearing" and "Wash behind your ears"). It's a short movie, but they introduce enough elements that could easily have lengthened the film by about 20-25 minutes without causing any problems. It feels very stripped to the bone at times, so while I'm usually the first to cry foul at a US remake of a recent foreign film (i.e. Let Me In), I think an expanded, bigger budgeted version of this movie would be pretty awesome if done right.
Given the film's thin plot and wonky 3rd act, I wasn't too surprised to learn that the film was actually the feature length version of a short film that director Jalmari Helander made seven years ago. I WAS surprised, however, to learn that the short's plot was more like the last 5 minutes of the feature length, with nothing about a giant Santa (or even any kids for that matter). It's like Helander keeps focusing on the wrong part of his own story. No dude, screw the elves - GIANT MONSTER SANTA, dammit! You can watch the short film (plus a sequel that acts as an instructional video for those who have received an "original Finnish Father Christmas") on Youtube. Even though it kind of spoils the twist of the movie, watching them before might make you less disappointed than I was with the movie's climax, since you will know beforehand that the elves are what Helander is most interested in.
Weak ending aside, it's still one of the more unique and enjoyable Christmas "horror" movies in ages, and I'm happy that it has gotten a theatrical release despite the language barrier (the first scene is actually in English though; which momentarily gave me hope I wouldn't have to read the movie). Horror fans might be disappointed that it's not the "killer Santa" movie they might have expected, but the tone was clearly inspired by a lot of your favorite monster movies, and thus I feel it makes for a perfectly acceptable horror movie.
What say you?