15 December 2010

Satan Claus- RARE EXPORTS Review

Has anybody noticed that Christmas films are now like the also-rans at the box office each December in the same way as a festive single will fall under the wheels of the X Factor winner's single in the race for Christmas number 1? Last year, the big draw was Avatar, leaving Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol out in the cold. Then again, Zemeckis got the last bonafide Christmas hit at the cinema with The Polar Express at the end of 2004.

With Gulliver's Travels and Little Fockers looming hideously into sight in the next couple of weeks, I'm pleased to recommend the hidden festive gem of this year, Rare Exports, a Finnish horror thriller about a boy who still believes in Santa Claus. That is, the Santa Claus of Finnish folklore- an angry, naked old monster who prowls around punishing naughty children with death more than he rewards nice kids with presents. The boy's community of reindeer herders in Lapland manages to capture the monster when Santa's burial mound is unearthed by archaeologists, but Christmas is just around the corner...

For all of the demented promise of "Santa kills kids" as a story, what distinguishes Rare Exports as a real festive treat is how tastefully the actual violence is handled. More often than not, it's apparent only be flying headgear rolling into shot as old Father Christmas decapitates a naughty someone or other off camera. My only major criticism of the film is that it could as easily have played to a family audience if it weren't for the profanity and shots of Santa's chestnuts flopping around as he chases down his prey.

I criticise this only because if this gets the following it deserves, a souped up American remake is surely inevitable, and they'll take their cue from the 15 certificate content rather than the story. That means it'll be directed by Eli Roth when Joe Dante could do a better job with it. Ho ho ho. But as in the case of Let The Right One In and The Secret in Their Eyes, other modern classics in the foreign language that have been poached by Hollywood, the source material we've got is something far less easy to classify.

What Jalmari Helander, the creator of this concept, has managed to do in his script and in his direction is to balance festive spirit with demented and slightly disgusting horror elements. Santa, when we see him, is repulsive- as the resourceful Pietari, our leading boy, tells us, "the Coca-Cola Santa is a lie". Even though he borrows certain elements from The Thing and Raiders of the Lost Ark to pitch the feature, Helander goes all out to subvert that hegemonised American image of Santa Claus, making a film that's not so much The Santa Clause as Aliens, the Christmas special.

The pace might be slow overall, but viewing it from the outside after the fantastic second half, it's about Pietari's growth from a boy into a man in the most isolated homestead imaginable. In the slower parts of the film, we see how he has to put up with teasing from his dickhead friend, and piss in the snow for lack of a bathroom in the cabin where he lives. The biggest attraction is the expedition at the top of the nearby mountain. Once that all goes wrong, he becomes something of a badass, tooling up with a rifle and hockey gear for armour, and setting bear traps in the fireplace in case Santa comes down the chimney.

Few other filmmakers could afford to pace things as slowly in such a manageable 83 minute film, but Helander pulls it all together rather well. The actors seem to have it down, and Onni Tommila, who plays our hero, overcomes that notion that all child actors seem to give good performances in a foreign language because English audiences can't understand what they're saying to hear how they delivered it. For Tommila, it's all about his poise and his approach as much as his dialogue. You can totally believe him as a makeshift action hero.

Rare Exports is the best festive film in years, and despite its deadpan approach, it really is within reaching distance of being like Gremlins, rather than making a Christmas exploitation film like Black Christmas or that Jack Frost that didn't have Michael Keaton in it. This currently sits as one of my favourite films of the year, and I'll definitely be revisiting it next December, to enjoy more of its twists and turns, its gleeful grubbiness and the warm Christmas feeling it left me with. You'd better not shout. You'd better not cry. You'd better not pout, I'm telling you why. There's a serious possibility they might remake this in Hollywood. And fuck it up.

Rare Exports is playing in selected cinemas nationwide. Seek it out and have a very merry Christmas.
If you've seen Rare Exports, why not share your comments below? If you really can't make it to a cinema that's showing the film, the short film embedded below is a more than reasonable substitute to tide you over.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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