The holidays are, ideally, an intimate time of year, filled as they are with images of gathering with loved ones around a glowing fire in respite from the encroaching cold. Even the simple act of gift giving brings with it the connotation of an intimate understanding of the wants and needs of another.
It is therefore wholly appropriate that all the best Christmas specials and movies evoke a strong sense of intimacy, both within their own plots and directly with the viewer. They draw upon our own experiences of closeness and familiar comforts (A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas), and can even play upon our perceived sense of longing to cathartic effect (Home Alone, Merry Christmas Mr. Bean, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”).
Another genre that seeks to similarly manipulate feelings of physical and emotional vulnerability is that of the horror film. On the surface, the disparate tones and aesthetics of holidays and horror flicks would seem to function together towards strictly subversive, even ironic, ends (A Nightmare Before Christmas, the Leprechaun series). However, it is this shared reliance on the element of intimacy that ultimately makes Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale a modern holiday classic.
The film’s core concept is as high as its mountaintop setting: a mining crew excavates the long frozen body of the Krampus, Santa Claus’s monstrous counterpart from Alpine mythology. When the creature seemingly eviscerates a remote village’s entire herd of reindeer, the townsmen band together to capture and ransom this real-life Father Christmas. Matters take a turn for the worse shortly thereafter, and it soon rests upon a vigilant young boy to save everyone from ending up on the naughty list… permanently.
That plot synopsis may make Rare Exports seem epic in scope, but part of the film’s brilliance is its tightness of focus. The relationship between the young protagonist Pietari and his father Rauno is the true crux of the film, the successful element without which all other aspects would be lessened. Granted, their chemistry is only natural given the actors’ actual father/son relationship, but the script also allows for a nuanced and often touching examination of the dynamic between these two.
While Pietari is every bit the self-assured survivor, enduring the reproaches and ignorance of those around him as vindication looms, his father is a far more fascinating figure. A relatively recent widower, Rauno goes through the film innately aware of the sensitive task now pressed upon him, of tempering his naturally gruff disposition (one well suited to endure the harsh landscape) with a softness of spirit appropriate to raising a boy Pietari’s age. This internal struggle imbues the film with a sense of heart, which is critical particularly during the more outlandish elements of the second half.
Ah yes, we are still talking about a film in which a naked, elderly man with a scraggly beard terrorizes an Alpine village. Thankfully, the film plays all this completely straight, justifying its scenario with factoids of ancient burial techniques and mythology texts containing gloriously lurid illustrations. The manner by which the Father Christmas is captured and contained curtails to a logical progression of events, making the creature’s inevitable donning of the classic Claus outfit seem more shrewd than campy. Even the final reveal and climax, though by turns cute, over-the-top, and operatic, never sees the story reaching beyond its grasp, keeping the stakes rooted firmly in the lives of its characters.
This all paves the way for the audience to willfully afford Rare Exports its ultimate moments (a montage serving to connect the film with the short feature works that inspired it) in the same way we afford Charlie Brown his Christmas tree or Scrooge his transformation of spirit. We celebrate these turns of good fortune because they’ve been earned, and because of the intimacy with which a film like Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale regards its story and characters. For as much as horror films influence its pacing and dramatic beats, this is a Christmas movie through and through, and as enjoyable and warm a one as you could hope to see this holiday season.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: TJ Dempsey is a film writer from Greenville, SC who graduated from Presbyterian College with a degree in English. He is one of the best film writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, and he is more knowledgeable of film than I could ever wish to be. Follow his Examiner reviews for keen insight and contagious enthusiasm for films of any kind.