Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale Review
Rare Exports, a new comedy-horror-fantasy from Finland, seems destined to attract a cult audience. In the US it’s been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories, the label run by the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, and has been supplemented on disc with another Christmas-themed curio, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Here in the UK we’re having to make do without the 1964 contender for ‘worse movie ever made’, but then we hardly need alerting to the fact that Rare Exports represents a really quite unique take on the whole Yuletide mythology. Indeed, fans of alternative seasonal fare will no doubt find a new favourite to rank alongside the likes of (dependent on taste) Gremlins, Die Hard or French horror À l’intérieur. Needless to say, the schmaltz so inherent in Santa Claus: The Movie, say, or those numerous musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol is but a distant memory.
There is also, arguably, a greater sense of authenticity that these Hollywood imaginings courtesy of the setting: Lapland, or specifically Korvatunturi where, according to legend, Santa lives. We open in the present day, on the 1st of December, with a group of non-Finnish scientists performing excavations atop the mountain. They’ve discovered something from “the olden days” buried deep below which, thanks to a couple of local boys eavesdropping, we learn is “the biggest burial ground in the world”, one that “puts even the pyramids to shame”. No further information can be gleaned, but once the opening credits have finished it’s Christmas Eve and the dig has been concluded…
During those credits we get our first sample of the decidedly Elfman-esque scoring. It sets Rare Exports up as a quirky fantasy/fairytale unafraid to dabble in the darker edges. One of our eavesdroppers, still young enough to believe in Father Christmas, does a little research following his December 1st break-in and concludes that “the Coca-Cola Santa is a hoax”. Indeed, we’re dealing here with traditions of the kind more like to be tapped by a filmmaker like Jan Svankmajer than we are a US festive hit. I don’t want to divulge anymore plot information other than that relayed in pre-credits simply because Rare Exports works best unfolding at its own pace and in its own distinctive way. So let’s just say that the burial ground doesn’t necessarily house the dead and that our young believer, Pietari, will become the hero of the piece.
Though I’d hesitate to call the film a throwback, there is something of the eighties’ movie kid to little Pietari. He has the same resourcefulness, the same requisite naïveté, not to mention the same moppet-y looks. Thankfully he doesn’t have that same cocksure quality that infected the worse of them; ultimately he’s more Barrett Oliver than Corey Feldman. Interestingly he also heads up an entirely male cast. No reason is given for the lack of females - they’re certainly acknowledged in the dialogue - but nonetheless the adult presence is represented entirely by bearded father figures, each of them something of a tough guy and each of them a reindeer hunter. Or rather they would be if they were able to round up the livestock as opposed to finding 433 carcasses in the snow. In fact, during Rare Exports’ early stages I was kind of hoping it would be, at least in part, a kind of Finnish variation of the Western set in the picturesque mountains of Lapland, with reindeer replacing cattle and snowmobiles replacing the horses.
In lieu of such potential genre-transposing fun we instead find a distinctly quirky concoction that contains doses of comedy and horror plus plenty of the unexpected. It’s worth noting, however, that Rare Exports never goes for all-out comedy or indeed full-throttle horror, and even the fantasy elements are more hinted at than shown with any CG adornments used only sparingly. In this respect I have my doubts that the film will inspire a major cult simply because those horror-comedies that do have a tendency to be either heavy on the gore (Bad Taste, Braindead) or on the gags (Shaun of the Dead). Certainly Rare Exports can be very funny - particularly the reasoning behind the theft of a hairdryer - but the humour is more of an acquired taste. Likewise, there’s little blood and guts, although we do find quite a bit of full-frontal male nudity from very old, long-bearded Finns.
If you’ve acquired Rare Exports’ particular taste then no doubt you’ll also be slightly more forgiving of a couple of its shortcomings. There are flaws - the script isn’t quite as tight as it could be, for example, resulting in a slightly wonky pace during the middle section - but in light of the overall uniqueness of the film it’s easy to overlook them. Furthermore the film is a mere 80-or-so minutes long and has enough going on that we never really have the chance to dwell on any problems; our eyes are always on what’s going to happen next and it’s rarely predictable. Of course if Rare Exports doesn’t click for the viewer then no doubt any shortcomings will only appear all the more apparent. But hopefully there are enough adventurous viewers out there in search of their next genuine one-off . It’s just a shame that British distributors Icon couldn’t do an equivalent job to Oscilloscope’s excellent Blu-ray, as I’m about to explain…
The Oscilloscope Blu-ray, encoded for all regions, is currently getting the plaudits for its superb presentation quality and smart collection of extras. As well as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, there are also the earlier Rare Exports short films (Rare Exports Inc. from 2003 and Rare Exports - The Official Safety Instructions from 2005) and the expected, more typical special features fare. For this UK Region B release we have not a single addition and also suffer from a weaker presentation. The original aspect ratio is in place, the colours are strong (particular the reds - this is a Christmas movie after all) and there’s plenty of detail down to individual snowflakes. The whole thing remains ultimately watchable and would be rather impressive were it not for compression artefacts and edge enhancement that occasionally blight the image. The former, especially, becomes highly noticeable during certain scenes - mainly those which were filmed indoors with ‘warm’ lighting, as it were - resulting in grain that looks a little clumpy and sluggish, ie not especially film-like. The problem doesn’t persist, but the fact that it’s appearing on a disc that doesn’t have to cope with any special features whatsoever (unlike the US equivalent) is somewhat disappointing. It’s also worth noting that the subtitles come burnt into the image, again unlike the region-free disc. The soundtrack, however, presents no problems with the dialogue being crisp and clear throughout, the special effects retaining their subtlety and the score sitting easily within. It comes in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio form.