Hanna: Although I’ve always loved Christmas movies, I had a real distrust in portrayals of Santa Claus in American television as a child. It’s not that I didn’t believe he was real; it’s just that the Santa I loved in Larry Roemer’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special held little resemblance to the one described my Finnish father. That Santa wasn’t a jolly, elderly fellow in from the North Pole, but a half-goat man named Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”) holed up in a place called Ear Mountain (Korvantunturi) in Northern Finland. Obviously, I thought, the producers of the American Christmas canon were a bunch of hacks who had done no real Christmas research; how else could you mistake a place called “Ear Mountain” for the North Pole? And why didn’t Santa look anything like a goat? It was a very confusing time for me; I always hoped for an accurate portrait of the Finnish Christmas specter. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, by Finnish director Jelmari Helander, fulfilled that Christmas wish a decade later.
Rare Exports brings us to present-day Lapland, where an eccentric, Christmas-loving American named Riley is leading a team of drillers deep into Korvantunturi for reasons unexplained. Riley seems to know that something special is lurking underneath Korvantunturi, and he’s itching to unearth it. A young rural boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila), who has been spying on the suspicious activity, begins researching the mountain; he’s horrified by what he finds, and begins preparing himself, his friends, and his tortured father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), for Christmas Yet to Come.
All told, Rare Exports gave me an hour and a half of holiday mayhem and deadpan Christmas-themed one-liners delivered by gruff Finnish men, and it was delightful. I always appreciate movies that portray a less popular version of Santa while still adhering to real cultural lore (e.g., Krampus, as opposed to an “Evil Santa” Santa Claus remix). I also love how absolutely weird this movie is (especially the final scene), and how easily the characters accept and adapt to their insane circumstances. Britnee, how does this movie compare to other Christmasy action/horror movies, especially American movies? Did Rare Exports set itself apart, or is it just some good ol’ fashioned Christmas schlock?
Britnee: Christmas horror films are typically either cheesy B-movies (like Santa’s Slay or The Gingerbread Man) or slashers about killers dressed up in Santa suits (like Silent Night, Deadly Night or Christmas Evil). The only Christmas film that I’ve seen that can be compared to Rare Exports would be Krampus. While it’s more of a dark comedy, Krampus isn’t a film about an evil Santa or a psycho dressed in a cheap Santa costume. It’s a film that brings attention to a Christmas character from Central-European folklore. Krampus is a goat demon who punishes bad children during Christmastime, which is much more similar to Joulupukki from Rare Exports than any other film version of Santa Claus. They even both use actual whips to whip bad children’s butts!
Unlike Krampus, which is one of the greatest “bad” horror movies of modern times, Rare Exports isn’t a “bad” movie at all. There are a few cheesy moments and witty one-liners (like the English translation gags during the Santa transaction), but it doesn’t stray from taking itself seriously as much as I expected it to. At first, I thought the film was going about a kid on a mission in a world of adults who dismiss his warnings until it’s too late. It sort of was like that, but the adults surprised me by capturing the “Santa” and trying to make money off of his captivity during the film’s second half. That second half is what really made Rare Exports unique, truly unlike any film I’ve seen before. So, yes, Rare Exports can be compared to American films like Krampus, but it really stands on its own it the best way possible.
Another part of Rare Exports that I really didn’t see coming was the abundance of elderly full-frontal male nudity. Perhaps the most nightmarish part of the film was the herd of naked old elves running after the pile of children in potato sacks. Brandon, were you as shook by the old nude elf men as I was? What are other parts of the film that you found to be skin crawling?
Brandon: The one isolated image that made my skeleton squirm inside my skin was those burlap sacks of writhing children. Like in modern Santa lore, Joulupukki has a fixation on transporting his Christmas goodies around in giant magical sacks here. Instead of red velvet bags of gifts, however, this “Santa” (with the help of his elves, of course) kidnaps naughty boys & girls from their homes in burlap sacks – presumably to be consumed by Joulupukki once he is fully summoned. The writhing sacks immediately look odd, but you don’t fully register what’s inside them at first glance. The whimpering protests from inside those giftbag prisons eventually start to make clear that what you’re looking at is neighborhood children being prepared for a Christmas feast, and that delayed realization makes for a truly horrific feeling. This film is just as much a dark comedy as it is a modern fairy tale, and there are few images I can think of that are darker than those writhing sacks (way more so than the wrinkly sacks hanging from the naked elves).
As much as I enjoyed its morbid humor and its willingness to go there when tormenting children, my favorite aspects of Rare Exports were mostly rooted in the way it functions as a modern fairy tale. The Joulupukki and Krampus traditions make so much more logical sense than the Christmas lore Americans are raised with, what the movie calls “the hoax of the Coca-Cola Santa.” Traditional fairy tales are usually set up as negative reinforcement tactics to scare kids into not doing dangerous (or, often enough, simply annoying) things for their own good & safety. Don’t wander alone in the woods or a witch will cook & eat you; don’t eat strangers’ food without asking or an entire family of bears will eat you; don’t talk to strangers or a wolf will dress in grandma drag and eat you, etc. It makes more sense, then, that a naughty boy or girl being monitored by a powerful, world-traveling Christmas demon would be punished by becoming dinner for that beast, not simply receiving a shittier gift than they’d get if they were good. Surprisingly, one of the most affecting parts of Rare Exports for me was the early woodcut & lithograph prints in the kids’ research about the myth of The Real Santa that reframed him in this fairy tale context. Usually, textual research montages aren’t anyone’s standout favorite moments in horror movies (if anything, they often overexplain background info that no one really needs to know), but I really appreciated it here as a crash-course history in Santa’s fairy tale origins as Joulupukki.
The elderly elves do most of the work in getting this Evil Santa legend across onscreen, of course, as the day is saved before the kaiju Santa beast has a chance to fully emerge from his Korvantunturi prison. I do agree that the image of the elves running naked towards the camera in herds was creepy, but I was personally more disturbed by their dead, child-hungry eyes than I was by their scrotums, which were just kinda . . . there. If anything, the elf scrotes only helped solidify an observation that was present in my mind throughout the film: this is a weirdly masculine movie. The central relationships between a boy and his single father, a boy and his bully/bestie, and a boy and his Christmas demon are all variances of masculine bonding or masculine conflict. In fact, I don’t recall there being a single female character represented onscreen anywhere in Rare Exports; even the neighborhood girls kidnapped as offerings to Joulupukki never escape their burlap sacks to show their faces. The elf scrotums mostly just registered to me as a matter-of-fact extension of the film’s general interest in masculine relationships & bodies, which was not at all what I expected from a dark fairy tale about Santa Claus. I’m not even saying that choice to solely focus on the lives of boys & men was a good or bad thing; it was just something I couldn’t help but notice.
Boomer, did the total lack of female characters occur to you at all during your viewing of Rare Exports? What do you make of how that choice relates to the film’s overall tones & themes?
Boomer: The lack of women in this movie is pretty astonishing, honestly. We never hear anything about what happened to Pietari’s mother at all, just that she used to make gingerbread cookies that Pietari’s father can recreate with modest success. Is she dead? Did she just leave the family? Is Pietari’s father’s harsh coldness the result of being widowed, or is his horrid personality the reason that she’s gone? I hope you’re not waiting for an answer, because we’re not going to get one. From a filmmaking perspective, I get the initial thought process of “This is a harsh and unforgiving place and thus we can reflect that by having only harsh and unforgiving men in this world,” but the moment that idea crosses one’s mind is the moment that one should both immediately rethink their understanding of gender roles and also write a woman in there, fast, before you forget! We know that there’s at least one woman in the area, since Piiparinen’s wife’s hair dryer is among the items stolen in order to facilitate Santa’s thaw, but that’s about it. Where are all the ladies? The only explanation that I can think of is that every woman nearby looked out her respective window, saw a strange naked man lumbering towards their home, and decided to skedaddle. It’s not satisfying, though. I can also see deciding to go full-tilt with the fairy tale elements, with so many of those narratives featuring a dead (or otherwise hopelessly lost) mother, but just because mom died doesn’t mean women cease to exist altogether. Even John Carpenter managed to put Adrienne Barbeau’s voice into The Thing, for goodness’s sake.
The “missing mom” narrative is well-worn, but not so much so that it annoys. While I enjoyed Rare Exports overall, I was put out for much of the film because I intensely dislike narratives that structure one of their primary conflicts around the “child believes, adults don’t listen” trope. It’s right up there with “the liar revealed” as far as dead horse plots for children’s films goes. This film feels like a “child’s introduction to horror” throwback tome, and while it would be easy to say that a scary film with a child protagonist is automatically a film for children, that’s not necessarily the case. Plenty of horror flicks with young heroes are certainly that (Monster Squad, Gremlins, The Gate), but there are just as many where the presence of a child’s viewpoint doesn’t negate that the film is not for kids (Let the Right One In, IT, The Exorcist), and of course those which fall somewhere in the middle (Child’s Play, Poltergeist, Firestarter). For me, it’s the reliance on the Cassandra plot–that the truthteller is disbelieved–that makes the film read as if written for a younger audience, not the child protagonist or the fairy tale nature of the story.
Of course, not that any of this is a bad thing. In fact, it turns the film into a child’s first Thing, which is an idea that delights me. I mentioned it above, but it bears similarities in its images, especially that of The Unspeakable Thing Beneath the Ice. Are there any other influences that you’ve noticed in multiple rewatchings?
Hanna: Rare Exports definitely falls into the tradition of male, rural coming-of-age stories with a bizarre swirl of action and horror, which seems to be of particular interest to Helander. His second feature film, Big Game, contains some of the same themes set in a more straightforward action template: as part of a male rite of passage, a Finnish teenager named Oskari (also played by Onni Tommila) is sent out into the wilderness of rural Lapland to track and capture a large piece of game (in Oskari’s case, the “big game” is the President of the United States, stranded by a plane crash en route to Helsinki). Like Pietari in Rare Exports, Oskari is boyish and meek, lacking confidence in himself and any voice of authority in his community, and ultimately finds his role through unconventional smarts. Big Game is also devoid of women; although it makes more sense in the context of that movie, I think it points to Helander’s singular focus on the development of the rural masculine identity, at the expense of other voices.
I definitely would have enjoyed Rare Exports much more if Pietari’s community had been developed a little further. I wouldn’t have minded a small, all-male cast if the men were truly isolated from any other people, but hinting at the existence of women without featuring them is a little bizarre; I think the presence of a few more women and children would have added some depth to the little herding community without sacrificing the sense of rural isolation. I also think it would have been much more effective to watch the number of children slowly dwindle down throughout the movie; instead, it was as if everyone all the kiddies had Roanoke’d before the film even began. Britnee, were there elements of the Rare Exports world that you would have liked to explore further?
Britnee: I would have loved to watch the excavation of Joulupukki. All we really get to see in regards to Joulupukki is a huge hole in the ground from where it was taken, and then we get to see it in a frozen block of ice with its massive horns sticking out. That’s it. The question of how all the elves got this massive frozen monster into a warehouse weighed heavy on my mind. Did they develop some sort of pulley system or were they all just super strong? It’s like a chunk of the movie is missing. Having more detailed Joulupukki scenes would probably have been quite expensive, but it would have made the film feel more complete.
Another element of the film that would have benefited from more exploration and detail is the bagging of the children in the potato sacks. As Brandon mentioned earlier, the children squirming around in potato sacks was pretty creepy. Having a peek into the process that the elves took to capture the children, shove them in the sacks, and hoard them in the warehouse would have heightened the film’s horror levels. The naked elves creeping into the children’s bedrooms to kidnap them for Joulupukki would have scarred me for life, and I wish the movie would have at least showed one of the kidnappings in action.
The aspect that I found to be the most unique about Rare Exports is its ending. It wasn’t really a happy ending, but it wasn’t really a sad one either. Yes, the children survive and the families involved in the destruction of Joulupukki end up wealthy, but their success is at the expense of enslaving the elves. Brandon, how did you feel about the film’s ending? Did you have any sympathy towards the enslavement of the evil elves?
Brandon: If I’m being totally honest, I 100% saw the final sequence as a happy ending on our initial viewing. I’d even go as far as calling it “cute.” The herders begin the movie at risk of losing their livelihood due to a disastrous cattle season, miserably depressed at the prospect of failing their families as providers, but at the end of our tale they’ve got a thriving new business with consistent annual demand. I guess because the elves had been acting as magical child-abducting creeps the entire film it never occurred to me that this conclusion could be seen as horrific. Their “rehabilitation” and commodification as globally-exported shopping mall Santas was such an upbeat turnaround from their naked, child-collecting mayhem that it didn’t really sink in how fucked up it was to see those humanoids (of a sort) being subjugated as a product. I saw the ending as a clever continuation of film’s function of a fairy tale, explaining where mall Santas come from the same way we explain that human babies are delivered via storks.
You’re totally right, though; the elves were in their own way just acting according to their nature & customs, and the fact that I never really felt for their plight at the end is making me feel a little like imperialist, capitalist scum in retrospect. I’ve got some soul-searching to do in how willing I am to overlook exploitation in a capitalist paradigm, even in fiction. You’ve now got me hoping for a sequel where the mall Santas rebel and return to their roots, bagging up the children who sit on their laps across the globe in accordance to their own cultural tradition and in defiance of their oppressors.
In general, I do think the film leaves more of an impression as a fairy tale & an act of mythmaking than it does an exploration of ethical or interpersonal conflicts in the modern era. Exploitation & enslavement aside, I suspect that from now on I’ll get a kick from thinking of mall Santas as child-hating demons who’ve been newly domesticated as living Christmas ornaments, their newfound good behavior tentative at best. Boomer, do you think Rare Exports will similarly affect the way you look at the ritual of Christmas in the future? Is there anything about the history or mythology of the holiday, as presented here, that is likely to stick with you every December?
Boomer: I’m not sure I will think of traditions much differently in the future. I’ve always assumed that mall Santas were hiding their disdain for children, so imagining them as demonic entities isn’t really much of a stretch. I think I’ll probably just spend the rest of my life wondering what the adults in the village did with those giant horns. What are they good for? And what, exactly, did the Americans want to do with their giant evil Santa when they got him? Are they just the more festive branch of Weiland-Yutani, incapable of seeing something monstrous as a potential weapon? Or was there something less sinister and more ignorant going on, a metaphor for the Coca-Colonization of Santa Claus? The world may never know.
Britnee: The landscapes in Rare Exports were gorgeous! The tranquility of the snowcapped mountains and snow dusted trees is a great backdrop for all the insanity that takes place in the plot.
Boomer: Like Brandon, all I could think about when those children were attached to the helicopter was just how miserably cold they must be, trapped in sacks and being whipped about in the freezing air.
Brandon: I was thoroughly charmed by our hero’s costuming throughout this movie. Pietari sports the same punk af haircut as the Swedish kids from We Are the Best!; he walks around the snow in his giant puffy coat & underwear; and his homemade sports-equipment armor is absolutely adorable, especially his butt shield that protects him from being spanked by the elves. There’s something about the attention to his costuming and how he adapts what he’s wearing to the situation at hand that makes him feel like a real, authentic little kid instead of a fictional invention.
Hanna: Ultimately, Rare Exports satisfied my need for a) a spooky Finnish Christmas movie, and b) hordes of old, diseased, elf men nudely galloping into a forest. If you’re interested in exploring the bizarre Yuletide traditions of the Nordic and Scandinavian persuasion, I would encourage you to read up on the annual arson attacks on the Gävle goat in Sweden.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Brandon presents Strange Days (1995)
January: The Top Films of 2019
-The Swampflix Crew