Slut in a Good Way (2019)

Christmas may be my least favorite holiday on the calendar, so I’m usually not one to dwell on Christmas movies as a genre. If I’m going to actively seek out a Christmas film to cover for this site, then, it will typically be one that overlaps with a genre I do especially enjoy. This novelty usually comes by way of Christmastime horror deviations like Rare Exports, Black Christmas, Krampus, or The Children. This year, the French-Canadian indie Slut in a Good Way offered me a much rarer treat as a Christmastime genre crossover, overlapping with a genre much less familiar with the holiday than horror: the teen sex comedy. In the recent tradition of high school sex romps like Booksmart, The To Do List, Blockers, and Wetlands, this low-budget gem attempts to subvert the raunchy teen sex comedy format by updating it with a femme perspective & a newfound sense of earnestness. It just happens to do so while wearing a Santa hat, which automatically makes it my favorite Christmas movie of the year.

Three 17-year-old high school friends take seasonal department store jobs at The Toy Depot to meet cute boys. One refuses to sacrifice her political ideology in order to be more attractive; one struggles to lose her virginity to the exact Mr. Right; and the third (our de facto protagonist) emerges as the staff’s foremost slut – “in a good way!”. Rebounding from a long-term romance that ends before our story begins, she discovers a newfound sexual confidence that encourages her to sleep with every one of her cute-boy coworkers. Mortified that she’s the last person to realize that she’s banged the entire Toy Depot roster, she ropes the other girls into a Lysistrata sex pact: no boinking until Christmas, to teach the boys a lesson. There’s a very old-fashioned Boys vs. Girls gender divide in that set-up, especially once you realize no one on the all-teen staff is gay, or even bi (in 2019??? no fucking way). For the most part, though, this low-stakes sex farce feels remarkably true to some version of a lived teenage experience; an early sequence involving a water bottle bong & public playground equipment felt true to my own at least. Its setting over Winter Break instead of Summer affords it a distinctly Canadian sensibility too, a specificity I appreciated all the way from the boiling swamps of Louisiana.

As much as Slut in a Good Way participates in teen sex comedy & Christmastime romance traditions, the film I would most readily compare it to falls in neither category: Ghost World. There’s something about its teenage melancholy & frustrated search for identity that feels directly rooted in that film (which meant a lot to me in high school). Little aesthetic touches like a D.I.Y. Bollywood ending & a leather-fetish cat mask make me suspect that association was intentional. If nothing else, the film asks to be taken seriously as a wistful indie drama on top of being a mildly naughty teen sex comedy. Its digital black-and-white patina & French-language dialogue allow it to function as the pretentious French smut counterpart to Booksmart (or French-Canadian smut, to be more accurate) while being just as tonally light & playful in its own moment-to-moment gags. That’s the exact kind of genre familiarity I’ll always be on the hook for, regardless of my aversion to Christmas cheer. I’m not going to pretend I prefer this film’s Yuletide sex antics to Christmas horror novelties, but if I’m going to occasionally stumble into watching a film centered on this (incredibly stressful) holiday, it’s nice to find some variety where I can.

-Brandon Ledet

Rare Exports (2010) Fan Art: Season’s Greetings from Joulupukki

Here’s a holiday card illustration of Joulupukki (literally, “Christmas Goat”), who never fully emerges in Rare Exports (2010), our current Movie of the Month, despite being the film’s central villain.

-Hanna Räsänen

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion, our look at how it subversively works as a child-friendly introduction to The Thing (1982), and last week’s comparison to its American counterpart, Krampus (2015).

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

Baby’s First The Thing

It may have had a rocky critical & commercial start when it first arrived in the 1980s, but at this point John Carpenter’s The Thing is a verified classic, one of the unassailable titans of the horror genre. Unlike how a lot of horror classics age into being so culturally familiar they’re no longer traumatizing, however, The Thing remains . . . inappropriate for most children. No matter how many times I watch that goopy-gory practical effects showcase, I’m always taken aback by how upsetting it is on almost a cellular level. The grotesque transformations its titular shape-shifting alien beast exhibits onscreen chill me to the marrow in my bones, even now that I know through repeat viewings what’s going to leap onto the screen and when. Of course, there are plenty of macabre children who love being exposed to those kinds of age-inappropriate nightmares long before they’re mature enough to fully appreciate them in context – the kind of kids who grow up to run amateur horror movie blogs. For most children, however, the cosmic grotesqueries of The Thing would be too much to stomach; they require a far more toned-down gateway into that particular end of horror fandom before graduating to the real Thing.

Our current Movie of the Month, the 2010 darky fairy tale Rare Exports, is the perfect school age primer for future The Thing fandom. Whereas John Carpenter’s 80s classic mines the history of monster movies past (using Howard Hawks’s The Thing from the Another World as an entry point) to catch its adult audience off guard with a false sense of familiarity, Rare Exports does the same with a well-worn subject that would be just as warmly familiar to children: the myth of Santa Claus. It doesn’t take much recontextualization to make a magical world-traveling demon who constantly monitors children’s naughty behavior (and penalizes them accordingly) into something unnatural & scary. Like the more recent Michael Dougherty horror-comedy Krampus, Rare Exports rolls back “the hoax of the Coca Cola Santa” to reveal that character’s more authentic, pagan roots in the Finnish folklore of Joulupukki. The way Joulupukki is depicted onscreen in Rare Exports as an unknowable, evolving creature entirely separate from its Santa Claus corollary is much more in line with the shape-shifting alien of The Thing than it is with the set-in-stone demonic image of Krampus. Both Rare Exports & The Thing allow your imagination run wild in determining their respective beasts’ true form, but only one of them takes the time to scar you for life with surgical & animal cruelty gore in the meantime. That’s the one you probably shouldn’t burden your children with.

It admittedly does feel a little odd to recommend Rare Exports as the child-friendly version of The Thing, since it’s the only film of the pair to feature full-frontal male nudity. A good bit of it too. Although Joulupukki never reveals his finalized form in the movie, his little helper elves are essentially scary shopping mall Santas who forgot to wear their uniforms to work, chasing down little children in the snow while entirely nude. There’s nothing sexual about this nudity. The image of naked old men is played purely for childhood terror the same way the goopy surgical monstrosities of The Thing are played for deep phycological discomfort in adults. Because Rare Exports is made with a European sensibility that’s much less squeamish about nudity than Americans are in general, it doesn’t interfere too much with the feeling that this was a horror movie made specifically for children. The only way the naked male bodies on display in Rare Exports really stood out to me was in emphasizing the masculine environment of the entire picture – wherein gruff working-class Finnish men wage war against a Christmas beast in the harsh frozen wilderness. Like in The Thing, no women appear onscreen in Rare Exports, so that both movies feel like they’re about male bonding & male distrust just as much as they’re about terrifying supernatural creatures.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to how that (sexless) male nudity might have played for me if I were watching Rare Exports with my own child. I’d like to think I’d feel more comfortable exposing to them to those naked old men than to Carpenter’s hideous tentacle dogs, but who knows.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Rare Exports (2010)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britnee watch Rare Exports (2010).

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 SquadGremlinsThe 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 InITThe Exorcist), and of course those which fall somewhere in the middle (Child’s PlayPoltergeistFirestarter). 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.

Lagniappe

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

Money, Sex, Love, Christmas, Blood, and Donuts

The Gen-X vampire slacker drama Blood & Donuts, our current Movie of the Month, carries a lot of low-key hangout energy for a movie about a bloodsucking immortal ghoul. The film’s central vampire, Boya, is reluctant about his role as an eternal seducer & killer, appearing to be genuinely pained by the danger he poses to the vulnerable humans around him. He attempts to limit his sanguine footprint by feeding off street rats and avoiding eye contact with potential romantic partners, until the urge overpowers him or until his vampirism proves useful in saving the day for his mortal friends. One of the ways this small-budget Canuxploitation horror signals this low-key, anti-violence hangout ethos is by setting its story in a 24-hour donut shop, where Boya can hang out in wholesome solidarity with other nocturnal weirdos without frequenting the orgiastic goth nightclubs more typical to vampire cinema. That donut shop is a quirky choice that maybe suggests a livelier horror comedy than Blood & Donuts cares to deliver, but it still helps distinguish the otherwise tempered film as a singular novelty (which can only be a boon in the crowded field of vampire media).

While vampire movies are a dime a dozen, donut shop movies are more of a niche rarity. There are certainly iconic donut shops to be found scattered around pop culture –Big Donut in Steven Universe, Miss Donuts in Boogie Nights, Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World, Krispy Kreme in Power Rangers, etc. However, those settings are isolated diversions rather than serving as a central location like the one in Blood & Donuts. The only other significant feature film I can think of with a plot that revolves so closely around a donut shop is Sean Baker’s 2015 Los Angeles Christmas-chaos piece Tangerine, which is anchored to a real-life LA donut shop called Donut Time. The opening credits of Tangerine scroll over a yellow enamel table at Donut Time, scratched with the names of bored vandals who have visited over the years. The movie serves as a kind of whirlwind feet-on-the-ground tour of a very niche corner of LA, but it’s anchored to Donut Time as a significant landmark to establish a sense of order amidst that chaos. It opens there with its two stars (Mya Taylor & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) splitting a single donut because they’re perilously cash-strapped. It also climaxes there in a classic Greek stage drama confrontation between all the film’s major players in a single, donut-decorated location that explodes the various hustles & schemes they’ve been struggling to keep under control throughout. Both Blood & Donuts and Tangerine wander off from their donut shops to explore the city outside (Toronto & Los Angeles, respectively), but their shared novelty locale provides the structure that allows for that indulgence

Like how Boya (Gordon Currie) awakens from a decades-long slumber at the start of Blood & Donuts, the similarly dormant Sindee (Rodriguez) emerges from prison at the start of Tangerine out of the loop on what’s been happening in her local trans sex worker microcosm since she’s been away. Over the opening shared donut, she learns from her best friend Alexandra (Taylor) that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was locked up, so she bursts out of Donut Time into the Los Angeles sunshine to enact her revenge on all parties involved. Obviously, this flood of Los Angeles sunlight distinguishes Tangerine from the late-night vampire drama of Blood & Donuts (as well as distinguishing Baker’s film as a kind of novelty within its own Christmas movie genre). Otherwise, though, the two films have a similar way of collecting oddball characters in low-income-level gathering spots—like, for instance, donut shops. Tangerine speeds through a blur of 7/11s, laundromats, dive bars, by-the-hour motels, and car washes until it finds its way back to its Donut Time starting point. It finds an unexpected symmetry within the low-rent late-night locales of Blood & Donuts’s own tour of Toronto, something that’s most readily recognizable in the films’ respective visions of impossibly filthy motel rooms. Or maybe it’s most recognizable in how David Cronenberg’s mobster runs his crime ring out of a bowling alley, while the pimp antagonist of Tangerine runs his own out of a donut shop.

You’d think that a nocturnal vampire comedy from the 90s and a sunlit 2010s trans sex worker drama would have very little in common, especially since the former is so lackadaisical and the latter is commanded by high-energy chaos. Their shared donut shops locales and commitment to exploring the character quirks of the weirdos who frequent them bridge that gap with gusto. The word “donut” may not appear in Tangerine’s title the way it does with its Gen-X predecessor, but the film is just as committed to accentuating the novelty of its central location. Despite being far too young to reasonably remember the TV commercial she’s referencing, Sindee announces, “Time to make the donuts, bitch!” to her romantic rival as they approach the climactic showdown. She also jokingly asks the Donut Time counter girl, “Do you have watermelon flavor?,” an echo of Blood & Donuts’s own bizarre inclusion of a kiwi-flavored donut. As a pair, the two films seem to be serving as two pillars of a sparsely populated Donut Movie subgenre. The longer you scrutinize how they use the novelty of that locale the more they appear to have in common despite their drastically different surface details.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the Gen-X Canuxploitation vampire drama Blood & Donuts (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

Everything about Anna and the Apocalypse makes it sound like a one-of-a-kind novelty. Just the film’s basic descriptor as a Scottish, Christmas-themed, horror comedy zombie-musical screams cult classic in its uniqueness & specificity. That’s why it’s such a disappointment that watching the film is a safe, overly familiar experience, a deflating feeling that we’ve seen all this before. A thin smattering of its one-liners land; it has exactly one good Christmas-themed musical number; and it’s hung off an admittedly clever metaphor where the zombie Apocalypse (yawn) mimics teenage emotions of leaving your entire life behind after high school; but none of those minor successes are enough to overpower the feeling that everything onscreen is a well-trodden cliché. The R-rated campy gore is too safe & corny where it needs to be transgressive & over-the-top. Worse, it centers its narrative on the blandest Disney Channel-ready personalities it can conjure when there’s a much funnier, more distinct POV fighting for screen time as a side character – the worst case of that sin I’ve encountered since Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.

The titular Anna is an escaped protagonist from a Disney Channel Original Movie – a high school teen worried about losing her friends & defying her dad’s wishes when she leaves town to travel after graduating high school. Her self-absorption about this personal crossroads compounds with the obnoxious atmosphere of Christmas Cheer to distract Anna and her friends from the fact that a Romero-type zombie Apocalypse is unfolding in the background – a longform gag lifted wholesale from Shaun of the Dead (except now filtered through Glee-style song & dance). In this new harsh reality, Anna no longer has the luxury of finding closure with her friends & loved ones when high school ends, as they are all eaten alive by the flesh-craving undead before her eyes. We tenderly say goodbye to characters one by one as if we’ve gotten to know them over seasons of television instead of a few short minutes of rapid exposition, while the least compelling one of the bunch is featured front & center as the inevitable Final Girl. The CG blood-splatter & Avril Lavigne level “punk” showtunes do little to flavor that genre-faithful tedium and Anna and the Apocalypse mostly plays like the Kidz Bop version of a more memorable picture.

I don’t want to portray this film as an entirely negative, worthless experience. A few flashes of humor do break through the Yuletide schmaltz to offer a taste of what could have been: a one-liner like “Christmas is quickly becoming my least favorite C-word” or a salacious song addressed to Santa Claus that offers to “warm his milk” and invites him to “unload his sack.” I was also often taken with an uptight lesbian side character whose quiet indignity throughout the zombie invasion is both hilarious & endearing in a way few other things onscreen are. All the specificity missing from the protagonist’s POV is hiding just offscreen with a put-upon ball of nerves who generates more pathos & comedic tension than the rest of the cast combined in what little screen time she can scrape together (in a movie-stealing performance from Sarah Swire). None of these momentary respites are enough to save Anna and the Apocalypse from its lowly status as camp cinema for normies. The movie doesn’t even have the decency to be over-the-top gawdy camp like The Greatest Showman. It instead achieves something as pedestrian as that one musical-themed episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plenty of people love Buffy, and that’s okay. I genuinely hope they get a kick out of this movie too, as it has the structural bones of something that should have stolen my heart. Instead, I spent most of the film bored, wishing I could listen to the horny Santa Claus song again or, better yet, follow Swire’s character in a much weirder, more gleefully perverse horror comedy – musical or no.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Christmas (1974)

When discussing films that established the standard structure & tropes of the slasher genre, Black Christmas is the one that most often slips through the cracks. Arriving more than a decade after proto-slashers like Psycho & Peeping Tom and just a few years before full-blown American slashers like Halloween & Friday the 13th, the Canuxploitation classic is somewhat of an island as a genre pioneer, disconnected from the movement that followed in its wake. That’s not for lack of cultural clout or stylistic specificity either. If nothing else, the cast of Black Christmas is incredibly stacked for a low-budget horror movie, especially considering Margot Kidder & Olivia Hussey’s central roles as sorority-girl victims. The film is also significant as an early adaptation of the “The call is coming from inside the house!” babysitter-murder urban legend, which would prove to be a significant influence on the genre. All the standard tropes & techniques of the typical slasher are already present too, especially in the first person POV shots of the killer stalking his sexually active teen-girl victims. Black Christmas is as much of a foundational text of the slasher’s DNA as any other that you can cite, yet its status is considered more “cult classic” than household name.

Because this is a genre template that’s since been set in stone, there isn’t going to be much in Black Christmas’s basic premise that surprises anyone who’s seen a horror movie or two since the 1980s. A mysterious killer makes threatening phone calls to a sorority house & methodically offs a series of victims therein. The killer’s identity remains hidden and we often see victims through his weaponized gaze while heavy breathing overpowers the soundtrack. Like with most genre films, Black Christmas’s premise is only interesting in where it deviates from the norm. The Christmastime setting might have been repeated in subsequent slasher franchises like Santa’s Slay & Silent Night Deadly Night, but I’m sure it was a novelty at the time. Black Christmas also deviates from what would eventually become the traditional slasher by resisting devolving into a bodycount film, spending most of its runtime investigating the murder of one sorority house victim instead of letting the corpses pile. Our de facto Final Girl protagonist (Hussey, laying on her posh British accent as thickly as possible) is also far from the naïve virginal cliché that would soon become standard; she spends most of the film refusing to be swayed from her decision to have an abortion. She also cedes a lot of screentime to Kidder’s mean-drunk sorority sister, who would normally be a two-scene archetypal annoyance before being killed off. In as many ways as Black Christmas resembles a typical slasher, it’s also freer than most to defy that genre’s conventions, since they had not yet been fully established.

As interesting as the film’s cultural context might be as an early pioneer of its genre, Black Christmas is just as notable for its in-the-moment effect. The urban legend of the murdered babysitter that ends in the punchline “The calls are coming from inside the house!” may seem too overly familiar to scare horror audiences without subversion or embellishment, but its in-the-moment tension is still horrifically unnerving as told here. The lewd phone calls the college-girl victims receive in Black Christmas are grotesquely unnerving. The killer gargles, shrieks, and moans in sexually explicit menace over the phone while the girls cower in disgust around the receiver. The effect is anguished & inhuman, an unholy assault of aural discomfort. The kills, although infrequent, have an unseemly nastiness to them as well. The killer has no known motivation or weakness, like a Michael Myers prototype. He strangles victims with dry-cleaning bags & phone cords with a cold, uncaring brutality, leaving corpses to rot without purpose or emotion. He hides in closets, attics, and basements – the exact nightmare environments that are relatable enough to feel genuinely threatening but are also oddly otherworldly. The film’s camera work is also off-puttingly crass, stumbling through the sorority house in search of victims as if it were in a blind drunken rage. Its unconformable angles & up-close split diopter framing are nearly as unnerving as the lewd phone calls from the killer – a high bar to clear.

It’s difficult to make sense of Black Christmas’s place in the cultural zeitgeist. Horror nerds hold it in high regard as a foundational text for the slasher genre, but it’s unclear whether that status has amounted to wider recognition & respect. Director Bob Clark’s larger catalog is no help, as attempting to make sense of any career that includes this film, A Christmas Story, Baby Geniuses, and Porky’s only results in pulling out your own hair. Regardless of its larger cultural context, however, Black Christmas remains perfectly potent as an isolated work. The kills are brutal, the soundtrack & camera work even moreso. The characters are more complex than what we’ve been conditioned to expect in this low-budget end of genre fare, resulting in more than just a skyrocketing bodycount. The drive-in era tagline warns “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl . . . t’s on TOO TIGHT,” and it’s one of the few films that lives up to that kind of carnival-barker grandstanding. You could likely find a better example of an early slasher pic that colors within the lines set by its genre and there are certainly ones that are more willing to exploit the novelty of their Yuletide setting. There’s just very little chance they’ll offer anything as eerie or as unnerving as a single phone call made in this proto-slasher gem.

-Brandon Ledet

Holiday Heart (2000)

The best way to sell the immediate appeal of the film Holiday Heart is likely to announce up front what it is in basic terms: an R-rated, made-for-TV Christmas movie starring Ving Rhames as a street tough drag queen. By now you’ve already decided if you’d ever be interested in watching such a thing, which gives me the freedom to admit that the film is unfortunately not as riotously fun as it could be, considering the potential of its premise. For all of the visual excitement of such a large, muscular man as Rhames playing far against type as a booming-voiced drag queen, Holdiay Heart goes out of its way to normalize & de-sex his character. Off-stage, Holiday Heart is a gay man, but his lover dies before the film begins and only exists in photographs, so the film’s intended Christian audience never has to actually see him expressing queer desire. He’s also introduced as a musician dedicated to worship at his local church before we ever see him perform under his drag persona, reassuring the audience up front that he is a deeply Christrian man and his sexual orientation does not define his relationship with God. Rhames makes for a fascinating appearance as a lumbering brute delicately holding telephones with his fingertips so as not to break a nail, but as a character his titular drag queen protagonist has no inner life outside faith in God and an emotionally vulnerable readiness to cry at the drop of a hat. He has all of the character nuance of Barney the Dinosaur and functions in the film mostly as a Magical Gay Man who can fix straight Christians’ problems through his (literally & figuratively) giant heart. The movie is still enjoyable as a novelty melodrama & Rhames’s few drag performances are aces, but that (lack of) characterization is such a bummer.

Holiday Heart is not just any lumbering, muscular drag queen; she’s the most popular one in town. Making a name for herself by lip-syncing to Supremes hits in a pageant queen tradition, Holiday is nightclub royalty, but still feels rawly empty after the loss of a long-term life partner. This family-sized hole in his heart is filled when he stumbles into a father figure role for the daughter of a near-destitute drug addict. The setup is awkward & messy, but Holiday essentially takes in a mother-daughter duo from the streets to protect them from the domestic abuse & homelessness that threatens their lives. The film is a strict melodrama from there (even name-checking Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life several times throughout to clue you into its tone), with many repetitive fallouts between Holiday & the mother he chooses to shelter as she slips in & out of relapses and flings homophobic slurs in his face to hurt his feelings (which is surprisingly easy). The fate of the little girl they’re both reluctantly tasked to raise hangs in the balance as they struggle between selfishness & self-preservation and The Christian Thing to Do. Obviously, this setup does not lead to a nonstop laugh riot, but the melodrama can often be over-the-top enough to elicit a chuckle or two. The earliest drug relapse is a depraved lighting of a microscopic roach found at the bottom of the mother’s purse. A flashback shows Holiday being shunned at his romantic partner’s funeral while weeping & singing “Baby Love” in full widow drag. A mild hip-hop beat plays over three cliché dramatic orchestral music that scores its more self-serious moments. And then, of course, the whole thing swerves at the last second to justify its pun title by staging its emotional climax on Christmas, a holiday that otherwise plays no part in the plot.

Overall, Holiday Heart is a lot more Christian and a lot less Christmas than it would have to be to satisfy as an over-the-top camp spectacle. The film’s super serious focus on Faith cuts down a lot of its sillier eccentricities and makes the majority of the experience feel more like a bummer than a party. Still, it has the dorky energy of a kids’ movie that just happens to feature a ton of F-bombs & homophobic slurs. It also can’t be over-stated how much the novelty of seeing Ving Rhames in traditional pageant queen drag can carry its less exciting melodrama slumps. The thing about drag, too, is that it’s performative & uncomfortable; most queens can’t wait to de-glamor after a performance, but Holiday lounges around in her stage garb as if it were a comfy bathrobe. He’s not at all coded as transgender, so that bizarre choice just registers as lagniappe opportunities to soak up the Ving-Rhames-as-a-drag-queen novelty, since the lip-sync performances themselves are too few & far between. Much of Holiday Heart registers as goofy & embarrassing, especially in its indulgences in gospel music & erotic slam poetry, but Rhames’s performance as the titular drag queen is genuinely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame they stripped his character of sexual desire & potential for society-disrupting chaos to better mold the film into a Christian-family melodrama about fatherhood. It’s a fun-enough movie as is, but it could have been an all-time with a little more personality.

-Brandon Ledet

Pottersville (2017)

Early reactions to the bizarre Christmas comedy Pottersville have been intensely focused on the over-the-top absurdity of its plot, which is totally fair. Michael Shannon stars as a small town general store owner who, once discovering his wife (Christina Hendricks) is having an affair with his best friend (Ron Perlman), goes out on a drunken rampage in a gorilla suit, inadvertently sparking a Bigfoot hoax that makes his once-humble community internationally famous. Oh yeah, and this incident is sparked by his discovery of a secret club of closeted furry fetishists lurking in his community. That’s certainly not the most traditional of Christmastime narratives (especially the part about the furries), but the movie is much more intentionally (and successfully!) goofy than people are giving it credit. It plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies and its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounts to It’s a Wonderful Yiff, but there’s no way that highly specific aesthetic wasn’t its exact intent. I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but it’s novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful.

Pottersville works best when the material is played straight, allowing the (intentional) camp value of the absurdist plot to shine through in full glory. Michael Shannon is disturbingly committed to his lead role as the put-upon shopkeeper, his natural creepiness only making the most impossibly kind character’s earnest, charitable heart all the more bizarre. His befuddlement over the existence of furries (which he unfortunately discovers by catching his wife mid-yiff) and subsequent, moonshine-influenced decision to run amok as Bigfoot are the easy highlights of the film, wonderfully clashing against the Frank Capra Christmas backdrop. By the time he’s drunkenly howling to the night like a wild animal, the performance is downright Nic Cagian. Thomas Lennon’s turn as the film’s heel is much more pedestrian. Dressed up like an early 2000s boy band singer and armed with a horrendous Australian accent, Lennon plays a reality TV “monster hunter” who blows the Bigfoot story way out of proportion, compounding the small town & general store owner’s problems exponentially. He feels like he’s airdropped in from a much broader, more conventional comedy, which detracts heavily from the much more unique tension between Michael Shannon and the furries, but he’s also amusing enough in isolation that he doesn’t ruin the fun of the picture at large. If nothing else, between this movie & Monster Trucks, Lennon has at least built an interesting case for being Bad Movie MVP of 2017.

Delivered by first-time writer/director team of Seth Henrikson & Daniel Meyer, Pottersville is surprisingly well constructed as a visual piece & an oddly subversive act of comedic writing. The town itself looks like a whimsically manicured snow globe miniature, giving it that Pushing Daisies dollhouse look; even the run-down trailer park is super cute. The script also sneaks in out-of-nowhere allusions to Freaks, Jaws, and the Christian Bale freak-out tape … just because? Whenever it functions as an outright comedy it threatens to become hopelessly pedestrian, but the basic premise of Michael Shannon as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer trying to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life is enough to carry the film as a Christmastime novelty. I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing when achieving that strange imbalance; you don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing. Either way, it’s a strange delight.

-Brandon Ledet