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Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 10

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

2010 was, it seems, the year of European horror movies that put dark twists on characters more-or-less analogous to Santa Claus. The year brought us both Holland's “Saint” and Finland's “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.” Based on a series of popular internet shorts, about a company that captures and exports wild Santas in Finland, the film was the more critically admired of the two. Which was in contrast to the public perception. Seemed like a lot of fans felt this killer Santa Claus movie didn't deliver. Yet, ultimately, comparing the two films is as pointless as comparing the countries that birthed them. While “Saint” is a slasher flick, “Rare Exports” is a moodier exercise.

Far off in Lapland, a British team of excavator has uncovered something unusual deep within the ice. The team leader believes it to be the burial mound of Santa Claus. But this ancient Santa is not the giving, benevolent figure we know. This Santa is a giant, horned figure that devours children. Frozen in a block of ice but still alive, a group of elves – which also resemble the archetypal Claus – appear to free their master. They begin to kidnap children and radiators, melting the ice. A group of local reindeer farmer and butchers, along with their especially brave children, are tasked with preventing the dreaded Claus' return.

It's fair to call “Rare Exports” a slow burn. Despite the salacious premise, of a small Finnish village attacked by killer Santa Clauses, the film focuses more on atmosphere than exploitation. The first hour is about Pietari, the film's young protagonist, and his family noticing weird stuff is going on around them. We see far more evidence of the evil Clauses, like a field of dead reindeer or a body in a trap, before we actually see the sprites themselves. This leads to a sense of mounting dread, building up to the reveal of the elves and their evil master. To this, the film adds a very isolated, snowy, and extremely cold setting. Bright but detached, with a dusty wind frequently blowing in the background, Lapland becomes an ideal place to tell a story of chilly, Christmas fear.

So “Rare Exports” is not a horror movie packed full of shocks and scares. In fact, it often bends towards an odd sense of humor. The elves are nude in their natural states. This leads to bizarre images, like a herd of naked and bearded men trampling through the Finnish snow. Yet there's something ominous about the film turning a figure of holiday cheer into something more sinister. These elves are otherworldly, starring blankly with wide eyes. They have a naturally predatory attitude towards children, watching them with hungry expressions. There's little gore in the film but when the elves attack, they are swift, burying axes in scalps and throwing decapitated heads into the snow.

As someone fascinated with the mythological and anthropological origins of Santa Claus, “Rare Exports” scratches a few itches. To be totally technical, the film isn't about Santa Claus but Joulupukki. Though their modern iterations are basically identical, the Joulupukki is a far older character with pagan roots, possibly tracing back to Thor. The name literally translates to “Yule Goat,” which “Rare Exports” nods to by giving their frozen Santa giant horns. The character was, originally, said to punish children as often as he rewarded them. “Rare Exports” references this early on, showing a book devoted to pictures of Santa attacking children or boiling them in stews. To present an alternative origin story for the jovial gift-giving figure, one steeped in fear instead of glee, makes “Rare Exports” a film about how history is co-opted by consumerism. That the film literally ends with these Santas being shipped around the world as a product almost puts too fine a point upon it.

On a simpler level, “Rare Exports” is also about a boy's journey into adulthood. At the film's beginning, Pietari is a timid child. He still believes in Santa Claus. He closes his eyes when entering his father's workshop. He carries a stuffed toy with him everywhere, often talking to the plush animal. He is fearful of the sinister Santas at first, covering himself with home-made armor and leaving traps in the chimney. As the story progresses, Pietari becomes more bold. Eventually, the boy's quick thinking and bravery is what saves the day. That this turn happens when he discovers the truth about Santa Claus – around the same time he abandons his stuffed animal friend – connects this change with a loss of innocence. But it's not a bad thing, as he also earns his dad's respect. It's fairly simple writing but a solid execution of the character arc.

I can understand why those expecting a movie about a rampaging, evil Santa were disappointed in “Rare Exports.” It's going for something a little more pointed and a lot more subtle. If you're willing to play on the film's side, you're likely to find an interesting experience, with some intriguing ideas and an occasionally spooky moment. Finnish film scholars would probably find the movie an even deeper experience, as I suspect the script is also saying something about local traditions being adsorbed by corporate interest. If nothing else, it's one hell of an alternative Christmas movie. [7/10]

He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)

As a child of the nineties, the appeal of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” is largely lost on me. I came along too late for the original iterations of these characters and later reboots didn't draw me in. I find the random blending of fantasy and science-fiction elements to be nonsensical. While I'm a fan of campy eighties bullshit, the general aesthetic of the show leans a little too hard on the pastel side of things for me. Even the name strikes me as dumb. Is it necessary to accentuate that Prince Adam's alter-ego is both a “He” and a “Man?”

So, no, I've never seen “He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special” before. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a single episode of either series before. Despite that, I decided to give this forty-four minute long holiday special a shot, primarily because its consider a seasonal camp classics by the reasonable folks at fine websites like Dinosaur Dracula and I-Mockery. Also, it's streaming free (and legally) on Youtube, so I really had no excuse.

As someone mostly unfamiliar with the lore of either series, I find the plot of this “Christmas Special” to be especially preposterous. Eternia, the sci-fi/fantasy world He-Man and his friends call home, is celebrating the birthday of the royal twins, the civilian identities of the titular heroes. Meanwhile, Prince Adam and Man-at-Arms are activating a rocket to spy on Skeletor, their arch-enemy. Magical sidekick Orko stowaways on the ship. He accidentally ends up on Earth and drags two human kids back to Eternia. The kids are getting ready to celebrate Christmas and bring the strange traditions to the alien world. This motivates the bad guys to muck up the incoming holiday celebration.

Like most every cartoon from the eighties, “He-Man” and “She-Ra” were designed to sell toys. To this goal, the Christmas special includes as many characters from both shows as possible. Some of these cast members strike me as especially absurd. She-Ra has a flying unicorn that talks with a surprisingly deep voice. There's a flamboyantly-voiced fairy that sprays rainbows, a random mermaid, a peacock feathered psychic, and some guy with an elephant head. Also included are a villainous henchmen with two bickering heads, cutesy robot friends, and a horde of evil transforming robots. Considering this special aired in 1985, one year after “Transformers” came to America, that last group of characters can't help but strike me as an especially calculated attempt to ride a rival property's popularity. The robots being evil, and easily defeated, might even be a petty jab at the other franchise.

While I'm generally a fan of stupid bullshit, “He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” struck me mostly as incredibly annoying. The characters are blindingly colorful and most of them have obnoxious voices. Like Hordak, She-Ra's enemy and Skeletor's professional rival, who honks and slurps every few lines. Or Orko, who squeaks and rhymes, spending most of the special being captured by some bad guy. The characters without annoying voices, like He-Man and his sister, speak exclusively in banal catchphrases. The plot is both needlessly convoluted and ridiculously simple. It's a series of encounters between a bunch of inconsequential assholes, the heroes chasing plot devices or captured allies. What about those fucking kids? God, they're irritating. When they aren't whining, their spouting off exposition about Christmas for their new alien friends. They even have a song, a painfully saccharine musical number.

So what does “He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” offer a Eternia skeptic like me? Skeletor being an endearing doofus, that's what. The show characterizes the villain as a bumbling employee, struggling against his own incompetence to please his finicky boss. The spirit of the holiday and the sickeningly sweet kid get to the skull-faced bad guy. He's inability to understand Christmas, and his dismay at being corrupted by the holly jolly festivities, are way funnier than probably was intended. Otherwise, I think I greatly prefer my “He-Man” to include Dolph Lundgren murdering people. Good luck with that one-hundredth attempt at a reboot, Mattel. [5/10]

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