Joulupukki’s Little Helpers

Too many Christmastime horror novelties of the recent past stick to the tried & true slasher template in which a serial killer dresses as Santa Claus while hunting down their teenage victims (Silent Night Deadly Night, Santa Claws, Santals Slay). Thankfully, the 2010s gifted us with at least two new genre gems that dug a little deeper into the holiday’s lore to unearth some lesser-seen Yuletide terror. The Finnish fairy tale Rare Exports—our current Movie of the Month—exposed the world to the kaiju-scale horrors of Jolupukki, a pagan goat-demon who punishes naughty children with much more fury than a stocking stuffed with coal. The more recent American horror comedy Krampus—one of our favorite movies of 2015—did the same for its titular horned demon, who served more as a collaborative counterpart to Santa Clause in Central European folklore, whereas Joulupukki served as direct inspiration for the character. Both films sidestep the Santa Slasher cliché the Christmas Horror genre too often settles into by rolling back “the hoax of the Coca Cola Santa” to its traditional pagan origins. Since neither film are big-budget affairs, however, they have to delegate some of the wintry mayhem caused by their respective CG goat demons to their minion underlings, a financial necessity they approach in drastically different ways.

For its part, Rare Exports is entirely about Joulipukki’s little helpers. When the children go missing from a remote village outside the mountain Korvantunturi (where Joulupukki is believed to be imprisoned), it’s assumed that the goat-demon himself is responsible for their disappearance. However, to save precious production dollars and avoid the embarrassment of a potentially cheap-looking CG Joulupukki, the film never fully unleashes the kaiju scale beast; it only gradually defrosts him to provide a ticking clock for the protagonists to race against. The childhood abductions are instead orchestrated by Santa’s “elves”: mute, naked old men who resemble Santa Claus impersonators stripped down for a much-needed shower. Thematically, Rare Exports is about coming-of-age self-actualization and familial male bonding. Plot-wise, though, it’s all about those elves. By its conclusion, the film proves to be a fairy tale about where shopping mall Santas come from, the same way we explain that babies are delivered via stork. These naked, Santa-reminiscent elves stir up a lot more mayhem than Joulupukki himself, but they also provide a much-needed punchline to the story’s mythmaking buildup. Without them, Rare Exports would feel uneventful & pointless; it would literally be just watching ice melt.

Krampus is a lot more active in his own titular, American movie platform. He hunts children & adults alike when an ungrateful, bickering family fails to get over their bullshit and into the spirit of Christmas. Eventually, you see his hideous Santa Claus Monster face in grotesque close-up at the film’s climax, a gorgeous practical effect. For most of the film’s rising action, though, he’s shot from a distance through a thick veil of show that cleverly obscures any potential flaws in the CGI. Like in Rare Exports (and in modern Santa Claus lore) most of the day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground horror in Krampus is handled by the goat-demon’s little helpers – heavy emphasis on the word “little” in this case. Teddy bears, gingerbread men, jacks in the box, and all kinds of other assorted Christmastime totems are animated to attack the grinchy Scrooges for their crimes against the holiday. Michael Dougherty maintains a tone akin to his cult-favorite debut Trick ‘r Treat throughout the film, but by the climax this cavalcade of demonic Christmas toys feels as it were guest-directed by Charles Band (and I’m sure straight-to-VHS Fully Moon cheapies were the exact kind of bullshit Dougherty was raised on). Krampus gets a lot more featured screen time in his climactic closeup than Joulupukki gets in his own film, but in both cases the Yuletide demon-goats leave most of the work to their minions.

Overall, I think Rare Exports is a better constructed film with a much deeper, clearer connection to its pagan folklore. The evil nudist elves’ transformation from child-abducting ghouls to professional shopping mall Santas even connects that North European tradition to its modern North American equivalent. Krampus still holds its own as a great Holiday Horror flick in its own right, though. It feels like the rare Christmas film that actively hates the holiday’s rituals & familial obligations in a way that a lot of people do, but don’t often see in acknowledged in popular media without repute. Krampus’s little helpers are massive part of that bahumbug sentiment, as they visually represent the holiday attacking its detractors in a direct, tangible way. I’m not convinced its investment in actual Krampus lore runs as deep as Rare Exports’s connection to Joulupukki, but a major-studio amplification of the Charles Band template is still its own kind of pleasure.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how it subversively works as a child-friendly introduction to The Thing (1982).

-Brandon Ledet

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