Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is absolutely delightful. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, the 2010 Finnish comedy-horror film has a sly sense of humor, a creepy troupe of monsters, and a youthful sense of wonder. Based on his somewhat grimmer 2003 and 2005 shorts, the full-length version of Rare Exports plays like a children’s movie that took a left turn at Albuquerque and just kept on going.

rare exports

***

Rare Exports’s plot is quite simple, resembling nothing so much as a strange, silly fairy tale. It is set just before Christmas, on Korvatunturi Mountain at the Finnish-Russian border. Legend has it that the mountain is a vast grave where ancient Laplanders buried the frozen body of a gigantic demon.

A foreign mining company is excavating there, looking for the legend. They uncover something big, and dangerous–especially if you misbehave. Pietari, a young boy who still believes in Santa Claus, accidently sees what the miners have dug up and realizes that he will need to work fast to keep his family safe.

No-one believes Pietari’s warnings. But when his father captures a bloodthirsty, not-so-jolly old elf and tries to sell him back to the mining company, they discover that the elf is not the real problem at all. And so Pietari takes control of the situation, ordering his father and the other men around according to his own clever plan and ultimately saving the day.

rare exports***

The cast is outstanding. Onni Tommila and his father, Jorma, play the heroic Pietari and his father, Rauno. Ilmari Järvenpää plays Pietari’s slightly older and cooler friend, Juuso, while Tommi Korpela plays Juuso’s English-speaking dad Aimo. Rauno Juvonen rounds out the group as Piiparinen, Rauno’s friend and sometime village Santa Claus–the traditional kind.

rare exports***

Rare Exports’s horror element is not exactly horrifying. The dirty, feral, naked old elves are as ridiculous as they are dangerous. They are Santa’s helpers, all right, eating gingerbread, sniffing the air for children, killing anyone who curses, drinks, or smokes, and working to release their master from his imprisonment. Wisely, Rare Exports’s monster-Santa is left to our imaginations, showing up as illustrations in various old books and as a huge pair of curved horns jutting out of an enormous block of ice.

The comedy is rather gentle, as well. Pietari, his father, and their friends tend toward goofiness rather than cruelty, and they are all basically honest people. But that does not mean there isn’t a lot of blood. Pietari’s dad butchers reindeer for a living. Somebody loses an ear. The elves do their killing with shovels and pickaxes. Gore happens, but somehow the movie manages to keep the mood light and playful.

I think the never ending supply of gingerbread has something to do with it.

***

Will Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale become a holiday staple like It’s a Wonderful Life, or Gremlins? Maybe. It certainly has plenty of family warmth, charm, and the magic of the season to go with its murderous elves and commercial aspirations.

And really, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

nightflyers

Nightflyers is a beautiful and ambitious ten episode series currently unfolding on SyFy. Unfortunately, while the show is visually striking it is extremely derivative, without the focus or attention to detail to be a proper pastiche.

***

The titular ship looks like a blend of inspirations from Alien, Event Horizon, and Silent Running. Various flourishes from Don’t Look Now, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, and Psycho are also pressed into service. It does not entirely gel.

Plotwise, we are confronted from the beginning with a plague, quarantines, overpopulation, genetic engineering, body modifications, murderous telepaths, first contact, memory recordings and memory wipes. Nightflyers is stuffed to the gills with details meant as world-building, but they lack the context and connections that would make them work. Instead, we end up with a fairly standard horror movie drifting serenely through outer space.

***

Based on George R.R. Martin’s novella (which I haven’t read, so I cannot make a comparison), the series is unsatisfying. Set in 2093, Nightflyers takes place aboard a colony ship whose captain has agreed to bring a scientific crew into an area of space known as the Void with the hope of making first contact with an alien species. Things, predictably, go wrong.

The science fiction aspects of Nightflyers are frustratingly mushy. Genetically engineered for space seems to mean stunningly attractive, grossly self-absorbed, and able to withstand high doses of radiation for up to four minutes. Cutting edge psychology appears to be cutting out any unwanted memories and everything attached to them. Memory recordings are a thing, even if you don’t want the memories erased. Computers appear to be just this side of magic. Which would all be excusable, if the characters were compelling.

Alas.

***

Three of the actors in this ensemble manage to breathe life into their rote characters. Maya Eshet brings a convincing vulnerability and wariness to her portrayal of the cyber-enhanced Lommie which made me want to follow her every twitch. Angus Sampson’s Rowan, the xenobiologist, resembles a heavier Tim Curry and comes across as both charmingly irreverent and deeply committed to the mission. And Sam Strike’s performance as the tortured telepath, Thale, conveys depth and layers to the character that the thin writing does not.

However, not all the characters fare as well. Eoin Macken plays Karl D’Branin, a scientist with an overstuffed backstory now leading a team toward possible first contact. I think he is supposed to be driven, but he comes off as kind of a jerk. As Dr. Agatha Matheson, Gretchen Mol spends entirely too much time asking everyone around her to just trust Thale. Agatha, conveniently, both the overinvolved psychologist responsible for keeping the dangerous telepath in check as well as Karl’s ex lover.

Rounding out the main cast, Jodie Turner-Smith’s Melantha is manipulative and arrogant and without any explicit purpose on the mission, David Ajala’s Captain Roy Eris is intense yet clumsily motivated, and Brian O’Byrne’s Chief Engineer Auggie is written in a way that makes his role in the storyline obvious.

There is no sense of a chance of getting to know these characters. They exist to get the plot from beginning to end, with a few not-terribly-surprising twists along the way.

***

In the end, Nightflyers is no worse than many other science fiction shows. But its unmitigated seriousness wears thin very quickly. Characters and story this self-important belong in a sweeping epic, not in derivative space-horror.

My opinion of Nightflyers is based on the five episodes released over the course of last week. I will more than likely watch the second five, as well, if only for completeness’s sake. I don’t actually dislike the show. Aspects of it are quite good. I simply don’t find enough there to grow attached to.

don't look now

don't look nowNicholas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now has long been considered a classic of the horror genre. But it was the director’s recent death that inspired me to finally watch it. I’m glad I did. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s chilly short story, Don’t Look Now is not just a grim, ghostly tale. In fact, the supernatural elements are background to the central agony. Don’t Look Now is a study in two people crumbling under the weight of grief, and watching their pain is disturbing in a way that monsters cannot be.

Nothing Is What It Seems

Don’t Look Now is driven by the painfully direct performances of Donald Sutherland as John Baxter, and Julie Christie as Laura Baxter. Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania are more collected as the sisters Heather and Wendy. The rest of the cast manages a consistent, cool disconnectedness from the Baxters’ pain.

don't look nowThe story begins with a tragedy. John and Laura Baxter have moved to Venice temporarily, following the accidental drowning of their daughter, Christine. John is preoccupied with his work restoring an ancient church, while Laura is left at loose ends.

Laura is on the verge of a breakdown. John is distant. Their marriage is fraying.

When they meet a pair of sisters, one of whom claims to be clairvoyant, Laura attaches herself to them. They tell Laura that her daughter is there, with her parents, and happy. They also warn her that John is in danger, and needs to leave Venice.

Laura is thrilled to know her daughter is happy, and actively chooses the comforting fantasy while still urging her husband to go home until the threat is past. John believes the sisters are running a scam of some sort, yet he begins to notice a small, cloaked figure that he conflates with his daughter. As the film progresses, John’s and Laura’s beliefs see-saw between what is true, what is imagined, and what they want to be real.

don't look nowThe sense of dread in Don’t Look Now comes from the reactions John and Laura have to their daughter’s death. While Laura is heartbreakingly fragile, John too is coming apart at the seams. He tries to appease his wife, indulging her growing friendship with the sisters. But when he snaps at her that their daughter is “dead, dead, dead” she places the blame on him so blithely, so matter-of-factly, that its impact is stunning.

A Study in Scarlet

Don’t Look Now has few secrets after forty five years, but its impact is still profound. Stylized and portentous, the story is doled out in intercut scenes and flashes of memory. Roeg’s technique keeps the viewer off-balance without confusing the narrative. The once-shocking sex scene has become tame over the years, but the graphic pain of Christine drowning will never dim.

don't look nowThe use of the colour red throughout is already well-known, as is the recurring motif of water–flowing, spilling, dripping. Onscreen the juxtaposition of colour and texture is absorbing, pulling the viewer into the subtly threatening world of the film. Close-ups of the actors create an uncomfortable effect. Rather than inspiring intimacy, they become alienating. We are shown things that may or may not exist outside the characters’ imaginations. We are left as lost as they are.

The muddy ugliness of the child’s death is echoed by the dank loneliness of Venice. The city is filmed as dim and full of echoes, with too many dark, empty alleys to get lost in. And although Laura and John are familiar with Venice and its old ways, they remain outsiders. There is a distance between the English visitors and the native city dwellers expressed through unreadable expressions and dismissive questions, and attitudes that treat the Baxters as difficult and troublesome.

Dead, Dead, Dead

Roeg’s film is a classic for a reason, and I recommend it for what it reveals. The horror infecting Don’t Look Now is not the supernatural. It is the inescapable pain of loss. Loss drives the characters to believe in the impossible, to follow leads they know are lies, to pretend everything is finally all right. None of it works. The only escape is, at last, to break with the real world and accept the ghosts.