In comedy, there is a mode known as the ‘high-low switch’, which goes something like this: it is always funny if you talk about noble, high-minded cultural concepts in a moronic, gutter-level fashion; or its converse: talk about silly or puerile nonsense in inappropriately elevated, humourless terms. This was the conceit behind much of Monty Python, especially the television shows, and it’s stretched razor-thin in Rare Exports: A Christmas Story. Jalmari Helander’s film takes a central genius/stupid idea, that the original Father Christmas has been uncovered by an archaeological dig, and that we’d all better watch out… and films it with all the elaborate camerawork, brooding orchestral score and portentous performances of a Spielberg epic, never breaking style or tipping a wink to the audience that this could be taken anything other than very seriously indeed. The result is an odd beast, halfway between seasonal kiddy flick and nasty-hearted horror film. It has a child lead and the lighting, feel, and pace of Hollywood product, but queers the pitch with four-letter profanity, dead reindeer and full frontal male nudity. This tonal weirdness is the film’s most distinguishing feature, an elaborate Finnish deadpan gag, which has been maintained and developed through two shorts (Rare Exports Inc. and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions) made by the same cast and crew.
Those shorts (available on YouTube if you’re curious) took the form of infomercials for a firm responsible for the hunting, capture and training of real Christmas elves for the international market. The feature tells the back story, with young Pietari (Onni Tommila) coming to suspect the horrible truth, that the explosions set off by a nearby American dig have not merely mobilised the local wolves, as his single parent dad Rauno (Jorma Tommila) suspects, but have unleashed something more sinister. When the reindeer herds that provide a living for the village are slaughtered by beasts unknown, Rauno sets traps for the wolves, and sets off for the dig to get revenge, not knowing that his trap has captured a whole new possible source of income, if anyone can survive to collect it…
Rare Exports promises to be delirious fun, and largely delivers. It does commit a massive cardinal sin of exploitation, in that, nearing its climax, it flags up a monster that then does not run amok, which is a let-down, but otherwise rarely puts a foot wrong. The cast, who worked fine within the two shorts, are clearly a bit stretched by the range required by the 77 minutes of the feature, but look authentically rugged and frostbitten. There are no female characters of note, and it’s a very burly and blokish film. Gore hounds might be disappointed that much of the promised slaughter is kept off screen, but ah well… like I say, it’s an odd beast. I feel indulgent towards Rare Exports, partly because it so perfectly apes the look and feel of the Lucas/Spielberg studio productions of my youth and twists them into the unhealthy humour of my adulthood, and partly because the spectacle of hundreds of naked old men being herded like wolves up a snowy mountainside is not one I’ll forget in a hurry. Essentially another anti-cute yuletide bauble for the Bah humbug brigade. Hang it on yer tree besides Christmas Evil, Bad Santa and Gremlins. God bless us every one.