Posted by David Kalat on December 24, 2011
“I didn’t know you could mix Santa Claus and horror movies,” my son Max told me this morning (y’all met him last week when he guest blogged on my behalf). He was referring specifically to his and my current obsession, a movie that has been inaugurated as a holiday viewing tradition in our home: Jalmari Helander’s looney cult flick Rare Exports.
Never heard of it? Well — as Max said, it is a (mildly gory) horror movie about Santa Claus.
Not the right jolly old elf of American Santa Claus myth, but the darker older mythology from which our Santa stories derive. This Santa is a supernatural being solely interested in punishing the naughty–but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The setting is the border between Finland and Russia, where a hard-scrabble cadre of reindeer farmers are dismayed to discover that their reindeer crop has been totally slaughtered–their sole source of food and money has been wiped out, on Christmas Eve. The rich Americans up on top of the nearby mountaintop, conducting some kind of dig, make for an easy scapegoat, so the angry herders grab their guns and head up the mountain to demand amends.
That word “scapegoat” though needs a little pause. For all those who insist on “putting Christ back in Christmas,” well, Christmas was around long before Christianity was. And if you trace those Christmas traditions back far enough, a lot of them dead end in the fearsome “Yule Goat.”
The Yule Goat was a ginormous goat-man thing who thundered out once a year to terrorize towns that weren’t celebrating Christmas properly–and children had to make offerings (of sweets, for example) to keep the monster at bay. In other words, the legends of the Yule Goat already present a strange mix of Christmas and Halloween traditions.
Eventually, cozier notions of Father Christmas overtook most of Europe, but in Finland, the Yule Goat traditions were stubborn die-hards, resisting the friendlier version of Santa for as long as possible.
With that in mind, back to the movie–
When the reindeer herders arrive at the American encampment, they find a recreation of The Thing: a frozen base where something bad has been dug out of the ground, and all Hell has broken loose. Seems the Americans ran across the burial site of Santa Claus, where ancient Laplaanders apparently tried to rid themselves of the evil Yule Goat.
Luckily, a little boy named Pietari has read up on Yule Goat lore and has some ideas in mind that might save them. Ideas, mind you, typical of a little boy’s fantasy: they involve explosives, helicopters, and gingerbread cookies.
The movie poster used the tag line “This Christmas, everyone will believe in Santa Claus,” above a picture of scraggly, heavily-armed John Carpenter refugees. This is the tone of the whole movie–a self-conscious reiteration of action movie cliches and horror film tropes layered on top of an admittedly absurd premise. Tongue may be in cheek, but it is not played for laughs–it is dead serious. And impossible to take seriously.
Much is made of this being a more authentic take on Santa Claus–the child hero Pietari (played by Omni Tommila) pulls out all his books on Finnish mythology to research the “true” history of Santa, and the film is promoted as being “from the land of the real Santa Claus.” But the real roots of this don’t lie in Finnish mythology so much as Internet memes and viral videos.
In 2003, Jalmari Helander made a short film by the same name. It was treated as a documentary look at the hard life of Finnish Santa Claus hunters, who hunt wild Santa Clauses and sell them for export (I never thought I would write those words).
When the video turned into an Internet sensation, Helander made a sequel, Rare Exports: Safety Instructions. This 2005 short riffs on the idea that since Santa knows who’s been naughty or nice, professional Santa farmers would need to be extra careful about not being naughty, for fear of enraging the wild creatures.
The 2010 feature film takes the same cast and same basic premise from the two Internet shorts but reworks them in different combinations. What’s funny in an viral video needs more to it to work at 90 minutes on the big screen.
If anything, the feature version is even sillier–ironically, because it’s more serious. The Internet videos are obviously meant to be funny, but the feature just keeps layering ridiculous ideas on top of each other until you have no choice but to laugh, even though the comic tone has been (mostly) removed. This is a case study in dry, deadpan wit.
Merry Christmas everybody!
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