Movies Now is a six week course in cinema run by renowned critic and filmmaker Andrew Urban (editor of Urban Cinefile). The course, for anyone who loves movies and wants to expand their appreciation of cinema, is based around blind screenings of new films, from around the world, prior to their release. With a glass of wine and a choc-top participants watch a movie without prior knowledge and then invited guests sit down with Andrew to talk about it in open discussion with the audience.
I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Wednesday night and was even more delighted to be invited along as special guest.
The film was a feature debut for Finnish director Jalmari Helander entitled Rare Exports and is predicated on an outrageous concept; After losing their stock of reindeer to a mysterious slaughter a group of struggling Finnish frontiersmen must confront the monster of the “true Santa Claus” now released from his icy coffin.
Yep, you heard that right - Santa Claus as a child-hunting, reindeer-slaughtering, Lappland snow-dwelling pagan monster.
In every way this film is extra-ordinary.
The production notes for the film make for a confusing read, particularly after having seen the film. The filmmaker describes this film as a ‘child fantasy’..! He also saids its NOT a horror a film….
Was something lost in translation? Should we all be seriously concerned about the mental and emotional state of Finnish children? Because I would argue that in (almost) every way Rare Exports is a defintive and classically structured Horror film that employs all conventions of the genre. So much so that it seems wholly disingenuous of the director to declare it not a Horror film. (Witness some of the promo images embedded below)
The film opens with 2 of the most distinct tropes of the horror genre. The first is a count down to a date - a fixed time-frame for when the ‘monster’ will be unleashed. Just as with the 7 days until you die ticking clock of The Ring or the time to the next full moon in American Werewolf in London, Rare Exports sets up a countdown to an ominous date (with all associated music and bass rumblings) from the very first frame. The prologue section then engages the fundamental tenet of Horror’ the Transgression. A physical transgression (American and British miners digging into the ice where they don’t belong coupled with 2 boys having cut through a border fence to spy on the miners). The physical Transgressions are coupled with a clearly stated Moral Transgression when the leader and financier of the ice-digging exploration declares that they now “have a grave to rob”.
There is no 2-ways about it, this is the classic setup for a horror film; sinister and terrible events triggered by the release of a ‘monster’ caused by a human transgression - going where we should not have gone and doing what we should not have done..! It is a fim rooted in the long history of morality-tales, passion plays and fairy stories which have long been the origins of horror.
And the overt horror-ness continues to permeate every scene of this film in its cinematics; from its swirling dark score - somewhere between the sparse heavy strings of Jaws and the symphonic drama of The Omen - and the frontier isolation of the setting - in the Lappland mountains no one can hear you scream…
Likewise the iconography persists feeling states of fear, anxiety and dread. Unexplained footsteps in the snow, the blood-splattered workshop of the fathers slaughterhouse, the deformed changelingesque hessian dolls left in place of the abducted children.
For a film with a decidedly un-serious premise it is certainly a film that takes itself very seriously. There is very little tongue-in-cheek humour in this film - whatever small chuckles there are are quickly swallowed again by high stakes horror cinematics. The subtlety of Scandinavian humour may be to thank here. Certainly its easy to imagine if this film were made in America it would quickly and verbosely slide into farce and satire. Rare Exports stumbles into no such slide, its belief in its own scary diegesis is indeed its great strength. It is a film that absolutely believes in its own story world as authentic.
The proof of this can be found in a single word - ‘Santa’. The word is used surprisingly little in the film the drama focused on the coming of age story of a young boy and his relationship to his father and his own manhood in a frontier world. The horror that is the unleashed ‘monster’ of Santa retains an otherness, a horrifying pressure on their already precipitous frontier existence.
If you removed the word ‘Santa’ from the script, retaining all other elements of the story and screenplay as they are, the film would remain, by and large, exactly as it is and simply dispense with the very delicate and deft light tough of satire around the undermining of our traditional idea of Santa Claus. The film would be a snow bound super-natural horror film with an unleashed pagan monster.
But the fact that the word remains does skew the film, no matter how much it conforms to the syntax of Horror genre, and the epilogue to the movie embeds this film with a very unique touch, one outside of horrors bounds.
There are two elements that force to reconsider the dominance of Horror in Rare Exports. The first is that the Horror is beaten in a classic hero’s journey finale - the boy triumphant in capturing the Santas, reconnecting with his father and uncovering his own trajectory into manhood. This is not classic Horror. The dominant provocative horror (at least contemporary horror since the late 60’s) is that the ‘monster’ cannot be beaten and that the best you can hope for is survival or escape - never triumph or victory. Hence why there are so many sequels.
The second is the epilogue (spoiler alert) involving the taming and training of the Santas to ship all over the world as Santa Claus’s for shopping centres and department stores.
This darkly funny ending is the only real point in the movie of laugh out loud humour. And its this open farce evident in the 5 minute closing sequence that confounds the dominant feeling state of the rest of the film. Where th classic horror film has an overt intention of leaving you with a feeling state of dread, anxiety and fear as you leave the cinema, this epilogue of Rare Exports is quite the opposite. It is a final permission to laugh, a self-reflexive acknowledgement of the farcical premise that had been until that point largely buried under superbly crafted horror cinematics and an authentically compelling world.
In the discussion after screening of the film, host Andrew Urban posed the question to the audience of how they would imagine the marketing of the film - a question that was in essence about genre and how promotion of the film may choose to exploit one tone of an otherwise complex film for promotional purposes over another.
In this light it is interesting to look at the promo posters for Rare Exports and compare them to other Horror-based but perhaps mixed genre films.
Sam Rami’s Evil Dead represents one of the best loved cult horror films of all time. And yet for all its gore and guts the film are essentially comedies - farcical, shocking, gorey and blood-splattered but not the less comical. And they become more and more a form a parody farce through the three films that make up the series unill the third (army of darkness) which is an out and out comic romp.
The variety of promotional posters and video covers of the Evil Dead series speaks to attempts to position the genre of the film and appeal to particular audience expectations.
Similar seems to be happening with Rare Exports where the tone and taglines on the posters steers focus well away from the horror and more on the comedy.
And yet this is in stark contrast to the production and press images which clearly speak to the fundamental horror genre of the film.
Is such mixed message promotion well matched to the film? Or is it misguided and schizophrenic, a confused message that may fail to attract the right audience.
Rare Exports is an extraordinary film; fascinating, scary, thrilling and at times very touching. These were all emotions I felt watching this film. Laughs were rare and sparse but the ending gives much needed permission to let out the belly laugh that is the premise of the film promises to deliver.
Rare Exports began life as a pair of short films that found big audience appeal on YouTube. You can watch Parts 1 and 2 below.