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12 Ways of Christmas Vol. II — #10: ‘Rare Exports’

Rare Exports movie christmas review netflix

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?

With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

The likes of Black Christmas (and the far less successful Jack Frost) introduce raging maniacs to Christmas, reversing merriment and wonder with gory visions of murder and morbidity. Jalmari Helander’s Finnish language slow burn Rare Exports presents a novel approach to those same ends, entertaining the idea that the very mythology of Santa Claus has been misunderstood for hundreds of years. Kris Kringle isn’t a hokey ball of joy who rewards good children with presents. He tortures the bad ones as a wintery harbinger of vengeance and extreme corporal punishment.

If this ret-con strains credulity, fear not, because it’s prefaced by a gradual setup and an icy, drawn-out atmosphere. Two boys, Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Jusso (Ilmari Järvenpää), come upon an excavation site at the mountain adjacent to their small village where a foreign company, SubZero Inc., appears to have tracked the location of the original, demonic Santa. What follows is a slow reveal, trickling details of a murdered herd of reindeer — reindeer which three of the village’s men planned to sell for big bucks — and the capture of a gnarled and frail old man sporting nothing but a long, whispy beard and a large potato sack. When Pietari tells the village’s men these “new developments” regarding Santa’s ghastly proclivities, he’s brushed off and dismissed for spouting childish nonsense. It isn’t until the old man attacks one of the villagers that the men are finally on edge. When SubZero’s chairman, Mr. Greene (Jonathan Hutchings), comes looking to chopper out his prized Saint Nick, the men strike a deal with the mogul, unaware that the silent old man they’ve captured isn’t Santa but one of many of his “helpers” who snatch up the naughties for Santa’s sacrificial eating habits.

There are few genuine scares in Rare Exports, but Helander opts for a classier avenue for thrills, relying on suspense, a loose “countdown to Christmas” structure and a keen withholding of context to maximize the power of his climax. Enclosed in SubZero’s warehouse of operations is a giant ball of ice, with two protruding horns suggesting the company has managed to dig up Santa Claus after all. When the remainder of Santa’s “helpers” come looking for their master, Helander’s chilly, somber atmosphere explodes into chaos and blood as “naughty” folks are decapitated and maimed via surgical tactics from the evening shadows. Drawing from the adventurous tone borne out of dark mythologies in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Helander nails a murkier “Indiana Jones” vibe — a final shot of shipping crates containing dozens of captured Santa “helpers” more than recalls the Ark of the Covenant’s uncertain fate. So much of the director’s vision (here based on a short film by Helander and his brother Juuso) is tuned and crafted for maximum suspense that a re-introduction of Santa via Pietari simply reading old books feels sloppy and circumstantial. Still, Rare Exports earns its title’s adjective for a wholly unique twist and a clever incorporation of Helander’s idea into modern Christmas tradition. Just be sure to check the beard on the next mall Santa you happen upon before getting too close, eh?

Way #1: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)

Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)

Way #5: Jingle All the Way

Way #6: Santa’s Slay

Way #7: Scrooged

Way #8: The Ref

Way #9: A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

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My Buddy is a Cage – Werewolf Women of the SS (2007)

Werewolf women of the ss Nicolas Cage Rob Zombie Fu Manchu Grindhouse

It’s got an iMDb credit. It counts.

And marking a rare moment for My Buddy is a Cage, it’s also available on YouTube in its entirety.

Faux trailer or not, I love Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS. Setting aside the irony that the worst of the four Grindhouse trailers was the only one actually greenlit for a feature, those fake coming attractions presented a little something for everyone — at least if you were into Nazis, S&M, Hammer Horror or senseless gore. Sounds like my Friday night.

More than Eli Roth in Thanksgiving — admittedly my favorite of Grindhouse’s trailers– Zombie completely nails the blend of gloomy decadence and fabricated melodrama perfectly. There’s the low budget History Channel intro, a statement about the film’s greatness that’s neither fact nor quote. There’s the inexplicably topless soldiers in lederhosen or the overly serious Nazi pomp. Bill Moseley as Dr. Heinrich von Strasser is also wickedly hilarious. What’s the deal with that weird rigid salute? He’s like this gleeful robot from another planet. “You have been chosen… rejoice!” Genius line reading.

If nothing more than pointless exercise, trying to figure out the plot of Werewolf Women of the SS is a blast:

At some point in his military campaign, Adolf Hitler commissioned a secret science experiment where buxom blonde German women were injected with a gas that transformed them into rabid, hairy werewolf women. Of the SS.

Based on Udo Kier’s warning, I’d guess that this secret Death Camp 13 project begins somewhere after the tide of the war turns against the Axis Powers. See? I’m already going overboard with this shit. And to be honest, knowing too much takes some of the fun out of what Zombie is aiming for, never mind that it totally defeats the purpose of a non sequitir trailer.

Sherri Moon Zombie Werewolf Women of the SS Grindhouse

Werewolf Women of the SS marks a turning point in Nic Cage’s self-awareness. It’s a safe bet Rob Zombie specifically went to Cage for this role, just like it’s a safe bet Cage had a hoot rolling around in his own ham as Dr. Fu Manchu. First appearing in old British fiction, the character of Fu Manchu has become a ubiquitous icon for evil masterminds — He’s your grandpa’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

While an over the top white dude playing such an over the top Asian stereotype seems random, it most definitely isn’t. Zombie and Cage don’t opt for as offensive a take on the character as Henry Brandon, but Fu Manchu has a long tasteless history of being played by white American actors. So really — even looking past Cage’s royal purple robe, the long fingernails, the classic goatee — it all makes sense. In a super fucked up way.

I remember Cage’s cameo catching a lot of laughs in the theater. Part of that is due to the actor, who seems right at home with camp that requires not a shred of restraint. At the same time, Zombie knows exactly what he’s doing, too. When Cage solemnly approaches his vaguely “Oriental” throne, Zombie cuts out the extra sound and succumbs to a Chinese lute; the rest of trailer just seems to get out of Cage’s way and run for cover.

Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS oozes with the exact same seedy stench it’s aiming for. That hard zoom right on Cage’s face is priceless as the “Ode to Joy” chorus kicks back in and Cage’s flaming eruption of zany self-possession pours over everything within earshot. It’s like getting burned alive by a molten flow of marshmallow and chocolate lava. Sweet, sweet, burning lava.

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Want more Cage? You got it.

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12 Ways of Christmas: #8 ‘Black Christmas’

Black Christmas Bob Clark Olivia Hussey phone

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. 

Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing? With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Bob Clark has one fucked up resume. If that name doesn’t immediately jog your memory, this is the same director behind the perennial holiday classic,  A Christmas Story. He’s also the sick mind who made those Baby Geniuses movies, a series that’s arguably more offensive than his 1974 yuletide slasher, Black Christmas

We’ve already discussed incongruous genre mash-ups, but a Christmas horror film? It’s been argued that Clark and screenwriter E. Roy Moore were the pioneering force behind the slasher subgenre, even beating John Carpenter’s Halloween to the punch by a solid four years. Dates are indisputable, but does tossing a Santa cap on Michael Meyers work out in the end?

Black Christmas begins by throwing us right into its disturbed heart. Via first person perspective, we follow a deranged killer as he climbs into a sorority house’s attic and then stalks and kills one of its residents, dragging her corpse back to his shadowy playhouse lair. Smooth camera motions — as they mimic real head movement — make for an engaging opening sequence, especially when set against the backdrop of ornaments and tinsel. Too bad much of the devilish charm stops there.

After the first murder, Moore’s screenplay spends another 40 minutes following other sorority girls and an ensuing police investigation. Had the killer’s whereabouts remained a mystery, Lt. John Saxon’s phone tapping and questioning might be more enthralling. But it rarely grabs the attention when a bumbling police case involves detectives who know less than the audience.

Black Christmas then exists at a crisis with itself.  When it cross-cuts the faceless murderer stalking coeds in the shadows, it nails the tension on the head.  We see inebriated young women, and we see “him.” It’s the girls who remain blind, and even deaf in some cases. In a particular grace note of inspiration, the killer terrorizes the sorority house with prank phone calls, babbling in multiple, sometimes incomprehensible voices. The abrupt changes from child to man to woman to lunatic combine for a schizophrenic and unexplained serial murderer. It’s to Black Christmas’s strength that it leaves his origins, and ending, ambiguous.

As a Christmas film however, it’s tough to justify Black Christmas’ existence beyond the pure shock value of holiday stab wounds. Apart from some sporadic caroling and an early Christmas party, the film is dominated by mordant piano rumblings and fantastic sound design. The creaks and groans of the house’s wooden staircase make for a gripping “last girl” showdown, but any overt Christmas tropes fall by the wayside, and the shock factor fades away to cheap offense. Moore and Clark deserve credit for pushing the envelope so early, but the slasher tropes they establish gel better with trick r’ treating.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

Way #4: Bad Santa

Way #5: The Family Man

Ways #6 & #7: Home Alone & Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

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Weekly Post-mortem 10/7 – 10/13

10/10/12 Friday the 13th (1980)

Last week saw the debut of the trailer for Hitchcock, a film that quickly filed itself under ‘boring autobiographical’ in my mind, but also a film that promises a narrative on the production of Psycho. While it’s nice to see appreciation for the thriller today, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th is a tribute to Psycho in its own right. The opening glass shatter and the cold open murders give way to a very Bernard Herrmann-styled score, complete with staccato strings and brassy barks. And what could be creepier than the inverted mother-son relationship? Norman Bates living vicariously through his mother’s business (and clothes) is swapped for Pamela Voorhees, acting out a decades-long revenge scenario against Camp Crystal Lake and those “responsible” for the drowning of her son Jason. Even the identity of the both Bates and Voorhees as the suspected killers remains a mystery for much of the film, an aspect later Friday sequels do not adhere to. To make one final comparison, Psycho’s final basement reveal of Bates in wig and mother’s bathrobe has always given me the heebie jeebies — blame the smile maybe. Friday echoes this as well, as Pamela Voorhees sports a rigor mortis grin and mythologizes her character’s legend forever in a single moonlight ‘pledge’ to Jason. It ranks up there with Kubrick’s furries as an all-time best WTF horror moment:

Once again, that mother-son relationship is milked to great effect, not mention plenty of delusional… ahem communication with the deceased party. The mere thought of an unhinged mother stabbing teens on a campground she knows better than her victims is as unique as it is disorienting in its rejection of a stereotypical male culprit — a stereotype Cunningham even teases once or twice.

Picking on the acting and dialogue, much of which is laughably terrible, would be unfair, especially if something like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre can get a free cult pass in those departments. And none of its detriments completely diminish Friday the 13th’s mood, which it still excels at creating thirty years later. Mrs. Voorhees’ manic streak and the isolated setting are lasting bits of iconography, and a resurrected Jason’s ‘gotcha!’ amidst Crystal Lake’s tranquility has stuck with me since first seeing it at a fifth grade sleepover, back when I believed Mountain Dew and cold pizza were a part of every healthy Saturday morning breakfast.

10/13/12 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Memories of a film can also work against it. My only recollection of A Nightmare on Elm Street was Tina’s first dream sequence, where a mostly faceless Freddy chases her through foggy catwalks and pipelines of some hellish boiler room. Like Jason’s surprise appearance in Friday, Tina’s dream has made a lasting impression.

I think I must have repressed the rest of this one.

Made four years after Friday, Nightmare’s acting and dialogue are arguably worse than the former’s. Characters shift between irritating to outright intolerable, begging the question of whom director Wes Craven really wants us to root for here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Freddy Krueger is easily the best element, but he has very little true screen time. Of course, the then-fledgling New Line Cinema would increase his presence in subsequent films following the tremendous success of Nightmare; there’s a reason the studio was often referred to as “The House that Freddy Built.” Still, its story and concept provide some redemption. The conceit that Freddy can only get you when you’re sleeping, is a brilliant one, especially as characters realize they can only put off rest for so long. Knowing what I do about Krueger’s eventual commercialized jokester status, the real terror might be how the ‘anything goes’ sandbox elements of dream horror were somehow missed along the way.

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