Combustible Celluloid
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With: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Per Christian Ellefsen, Peeter Jakobi, Tommi Korpela, Jonathan Hutchings, Rauno Juvonen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Risto Salmi
Written by: Jalmari Helander
Directed by: Jalmari Helander
MPAA Rating: R for some nudity and language
Language: Finnish, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 84
Date: 08/07/2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Santa Jaws

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I love Christmas movies and I have seen quite a few of them, but I can safely say that there's nothing else quite like Rare Exports, an import from Finland. The closest thing to it is probably the notorious Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), though that comparison does a great disservice to this well-made new entry. It also has a touch of gory killer Santa movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), as well as the attitude of something like Bad Santa (2003).

So it's like this: a businessman has bankrolled an archeological expedition to dig up the remains of Santa Claus. To their great surprise, whatever they pull out of the ground is still alive! Meanwhile, a boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila), that lives near the dig has begun to research Santa Claus, finding that, according to legend and history, he was more of a beast that tormented naughty children than he is a jolly old soul that shakes like a bowlful of jelly. He begins to fear Santa's arrival. Meanwhile, his grumpy father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), is concerned because their annual crop of reindeer has been slaughtered by stray wolves.

On Christmas morning, every kid in town is missing except Pietari, and a bunch of weird things have been stolen, including a hair dryer. Rauno discovers something caught in a wolf trap, and it turns out to be a grimy, nasty, biting old man. Could this old codger be Santa Claus? If it is, Rauno gets the idea that they can sell him back to the corporation that dug him up and make everyone's holiday bright. But things don't quite go that smoothly.

The movie is a good deal darker and more complex than I've made it sound, and it just gets weirder and weirder. It has a slightly unpleasant feel to it, probably because of the danger to children, or because of the severely creepy old man. (The other characters keep their distance, staring at him in fear and disbelief.) But eventually Pietari takes charge and becomes a traditional kid movie hero, leading the way to a happy, slightly ironic, conclusion, not unlike any number of family-friendly films. (Nevertheless, parents shouldn't take their kids to this gory, disturbing movie.)

Director Jalmari Helander's greatest asset is his frozen, remote Finish setting; it's the kind of cold and snow its protagonists are used to. In one scene, Pietari dashes outside in the morning wearing a sweater, boots, and a pair of tighty-whity underpants. The houses are rickety, but sturdy and warm, heated by blackened fireplaces and squeaky stoves; the characters snack on crunchy gingerbread cookies.

Just what is Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, then? It's a truly peculiar, and -- dare I say it? -- original attempt at a seasonal story. But only the most open-minded Christmas nuts -- or perhaps the most jaded -- should give it a shot.

Aside from their groundbreaking, environmentally friendly packaging (no plastic), Oscilloscope's two-disc DVD and Blu-Ray set comes with some wonderful extras. It has the two original short films that inspired the feature, a making-of featurette, two behind-the-scenes featurettes, photos, and a trailer. Amazingly, it also comes with the entire feature film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), though -- of course -- not remastered in high definition. The picture and sound quality on Rare Exports is excellent. I may watch this again during the coming holiday season!

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