Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the holiday terror classic, ‘Rare Exports.‘
Kids films have come a long way over the decades, but unfortunately they’ve been heading in the wrong direction. As a general rule they’ve grown softer and less challenging with far too many of them trading in meaningful pacing and complexity for ADD-inspired editing, volume, and fart gags. Animated films are some of the worst offenders, but there are bright spots including the likes of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart and Wall-E. There are fewer positive examples on the live-action front though as even the ones with heart typically go out of their way to avoid challenging or offending malleable young minds – they can be tear-jerkers, but they better be sanitized of anything parents might have to explain to their kids afterward.
To concerns like these the Finnish import Rare Exports says a hearty “vittu!”
I think that means “penis breath!” or something along those lines, but I of course apologize if it’s actually something truly offensive.
Jalmari Helander’s film, co-conceived with his brother Juuso, follows the Amblin model of confronting child characters – typically pre-teens or awkward teens as Amblin was never down with the CW-ing of youth entertainment – with situations and conflicts perhaps more typically suitable for adults.
The Goonies had kids face off against murderous mobsters and a pirate curse, Gremlins set monsters loose and featured the darkest Santa story ever, and Back to the Future lands a teenager in bed with his mother. Emboldened by such endeavors, Rare Exports goes one step further and features a horde of naked old men chasing after a young boy with lascivious intentions.
We open 24 days before Christmas in a small Finnish community on the rural border with Russia. Workers at a hilltop mine have discovered something unusual deep beneath the surface, and the man in charge knows exactly what it means. He passes out strict rules for the laborers to obey – better safe than naughty – but their precautions won’t help them now.
Young Pietari (Omni Tommila), a boy who still believes in Santa Claus and a boy who’s come to worry about and fear Santa Claus, comes to believe that the miners are digging for Santa. His best friend Juuso teases him about it, but as he pores over reference books on the truth behind the jolly gift-giver Pietari’s eyes go wide. Santa doesn’t just spurn the bad kids – he abducts them. When his father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), catches a smelly old man in his wolf trap they’re shocked to discover the old coot is still alive. He doesn’t speak, he likes to eat, and he can smell children when they’re nearby. Could this be Santa?
One of the many smart and fun story turns in Helander’s film is the initial possibility that this gaunt but frightening geezer could be the Santa of Pietari’s nightmares. Just as a single clown can instill fear with a glance this guy’s creepiness shoots to eleven with every glance in the boy’s direction. It’s enough to rest an offbeat holiday film upon, but we soon discover an even more unsettling truth – the old guy is one of Santa’s elves, and he’s only one of many.
They quickly work their way through the miners, snatching the full grown men into the shadows, but it’s not until they take aim on the children that we see them in their full, err, glory. As the other kids disappear in the night to be replaced by a creepy doll in their beds, only Pietari knows the truth and leads his father and a couple others on a rescue mission – and it’s then that the elves come into view.
Naked old men, armed with tools and covered in soot, running toward the camera in slow motion.
It’s enough to make you question if this is indeed a movie for children, but I would still argue in the affirmative. Yes, there are dicks onscreen, but they’re kept at a distance and/or in shadow, so it’s not as if we’re getting anatomical close-ups here. The bigger takeaway is how the characters here take no notice on the brief nudity – because it’s not a big deal.
Instead the focus is precisely where it belongs, on a boy who finds the bravery and courage needed to stop this holiday threat, save his village, and make his poppa proud. Pietari’s a one-boy Goonie squad, and it’s his efforts that save the community from bankruptcy after the elves slaughter the reindeer whose meat and pelts typically provide a livelihood to the villagers.
But we’ll get to Pietari’s ethically-suspect business plan in a moment. First, let’s give the kid props for blowing up Santa Claus.
The not-so-jolly entity is revealed to be a gigantic being encased in ice with only his large, curved horns escaping the frozen cage. The elves have stolen heaters from all over town and are trying to melt the ice to free him, and knowing that the pervy underlings won’t stop serving Santa until Santa is no more Pietari and friends set explosive charges into the ice block.
They literally blow up Santa, and that alone makes this a holiday classic.
If octenegarian dongles, kids with hunting rifles, and the occasional f-bomb haven’t sent sensitive viewers screaming for the exit yet, this family-friendly gem goes a step further with a happy ending involving white slavery.
Santa’s demise leaves the elves – human beings who’ve left their previous lives behind to become mindless drones – without purpose, so Pietari thinks fast and devises a new business model for the village. First he traps the elves by using the scent of children to lead them into a corral, and then they get to work training the lobotomized grey-hairs to be department store Santas. They groom and dress the old men, teach them to hug kids instead of lick them, and then ship them off to global destinations. It’s unclear if they’re selling or renting, but I think the latter would give the company – the Rare Exports of the title – longer legs as a stable business. (And now I can’t help picturing Pietari pitching the business on Shark Tank.)
Helander’s film offers beauty both in the gorgeous, snowy landscapes and in the relationship between Pietari and his father. The two are still grieving the loss of the boy’s mother, and it’s this shared adventure that brings the two together. Sure they’re bonding over Santa’s murder and the enslavement of dozens of old men trapped in the devastating grip of fairy tale dementia, but dammit they’re bonding and spending more time together as family. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
“Have a merry Christmas. And a happy bloody New Year.”