Friday, 23 December 2011

THE HAMMER VAULT - Treasures From The Archive Of Hammer Films

In the course of compiling the marvellous store of diverse materials that adorn the pages of this lavish, nostalgic, hardback souvenir-tribute to what must surely be one of the richest of British film legacies in existence, official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn has assiduously combed the vaults of the British Film Institute’s national archive and the rarely glimpsed collections held in trust by Canal + Image UK Limited, in order to supply sources for a host of irresistible treats that his readers will be thrilled to unearth once they delve beyond the attractive, attention-grabbing covers of his latest book, The Hammer Vault. These archival treasures include amongst them a wealth of personal items from many private collections, to which the author has been given privileged access by the myriad numbers of people who have been involved with or employed by the company down the years. The assembled new material includes then-contemporary press clippings, personal scrapbooks, handbills, letters, props, and fascinating internal company memos; then there is pre-publicity material for films that were never actually made, or very early poster designs for projects which were later given quite a different (and usually nowhere near as lurid) slant by the time they actually got to go before the cameras. The result is an object that can justifiably be considered a thing of extreme beauty in of itself: a vibrant treasure trove containing page-after-page-after-page of evocative images culled from a variety of often very rare sources, juxtaposed with countless reproductions of period documents and bundles of rarely seen film stills. All of which will certainly be of major interest to many -- providing the hopeless Hammer junkie with as strong a fix of undiluted Hammer goodness this Christmas as he is liable to be able to mainline in one sitting.  Furthermore, the material has been artfully arranged, with the judicious help and good taste of designer Peri Godbold, to complement the author’s lightly sprinkled text accompaniment and the book’s many informative explanatory captions.

This, though, is not just another bog standard Hammer history documenting the familiar behind-the-scenes tale of a showman's management strategies, engineered by managing director Sir James ‘The Colonel’ Carreras from his base of operations at Hammer House in Wardour Street; or which evokes, yet one more time, the friendly family atmosphere that so informed the making of what is now a world famous roster of films -- the bulk of them produced during the fifties, sixties and seventies, first of all at the converted Thames-side country pile that was known as Down House (but later christened Bray Studios), and, in its latter, more commercially strained years, at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.

Although the book takes a film-by-film chronological approach, all the same this is really more of a history in pictures of the work and promotional activity which informed the company’s hugely talented backroom publicity department: an image-based chronicle of the concerted group of organised marketing methods it regularly put into practice in the cause of promoting its wares, as an increasingly recognisable brand, to the company's lifeblood of distributors, international production partners, exhibitors and most importantly, of course, the public at large.

"Dracula" opened at the Gaumont, Haymarket to huge
crowds. This cover from a 23 May, 1958 issue of What's
On provides suitably lurid promotion for the event.
We’re plunged, from the book’s earliest pages, straight into this seething, energetic promotional jungle at a time during the mid-‘50s when it was in one of its most fertile flowerings. For the book starts not with the very earliest genesis of the name Hammer in relation to the world of British film -- when an alliance in the mid-1930s between former failed London comedian Will Hammer and his Spanish-born émigré partner Enrique Carreras came about as a result of their mutual involvement in pre-war film distribution -- but from the company’s very first ‘X’ certificate horror/sci-fi outing in 1955: an adaptation of Nigel Kneal’s BBC television drama, cunningly re-named The Quatermass ‘X’periment to emphasis the story’s predominantly ‘adult’ horror-based nature. By this time, Enrique’s son James had taken over control of the company and the previously discarded Hammer moniker was revived again and registered in 1949 as the name of the production arm of Will and Enrique’s distribution company Exclusive Films.

Most of the standard promotional practices, at which the publicity machine at Hammer later came to excel, were by this stage already firmly in place. At Down House, alongside the converted rooms and halls now being regularly used as the company’s numerous production offices, construction manager’s offices, the camera department and prop rooms, as well as the canteen and several big production sound stages etc., Hammer also found space for a publicity department and a stills office, in the vital cause of helping to sell their films at home and abroad. Stills man John Jay had worked from a disused toilet when the company had been based at Oakley Court, but at Bray he got to build his own developing laboratory and stills department by converting two old garages in the grounds.
Although Jay left the company in 1955, he frequently returned in a freelance capacity (he worked on the first colour Gothic, The Curse of Frankenstein) while his protégée Tom Edwards took over full-time to produce many of the iconic stills images which have since become almost as instrumental in establishing the  iconic status of Hammer Productions down the years as the content of the films themselves; shots such as that which displays the now famous image of Christopher Lee, as Count Dracula, bending menacingly across actress Melissa Stribling in her flouncy nightgown as she stretches out across a bed --  came from a pose set up and photographed by Edwards during the making of the 1958 Terrence Fisher film, and is nowadays as important for most of us in our memories as our knowledge of the film in itself.  
Starting with The Quatermass Xperiment, and then continuing onward for the whole of the rest of the company’s existence in its original form as an independent producer of feature films (and therefore displaying itself throughout the rest of this book), Hammer indulged fully in the usual array of promotional literature, advertising features, posters and a multitude of stills and creation of manuals intended for worldwide marketing purposes. In those days exhibitors could expect to be furnished with detailed campaign books, frequently including a plot synopsis, character biogs, photographs and background information on all the actors and actresses who appeared in the film; there were press books, hand bills, and sheets with ideas for attracting publicity from local newspapers; in the UK, front of house stills were provided for display in cinema lobbies while for the US, sets of now highly collectable lobby cards were printed up in abundance. This is the pattern which runs throughout this book’s representation of Hammer’s ferocious marketing of its filmography: the pages are crammed with images of lobby card stills, extracts from articles in trade magazines such as Film Industry and Kine Weekly, and magazine advertisements; often detailed campaign books were produced full of fascinating fluff and eye candy such as photo stories and comic strips, snippets of which we can also see here; novelty publicity items were common – everything from paper napkins (a particularly off the wall gimmick used in the  promotion of The Gorgon) to cardboard cut-out fangs issued by Fox as part of its promotional campaign for Dracula: Prince of Darkness in the states. Promotional tie-in paperbacks were another common marketing gimmick from the period. The Hammer scholar Wayne Kinsey, in his excellent book “Hammer Films: the Unsung Heroes”, writes that by looking at the progress reports sheets still in existence from the period, it can be gleaned that at least 79 rolls of black & white film and 77 rolls of colour film were used on shooting stills during the making of Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. He estimates that at least 2000 colour images must have existed from these sessions, yet only a small fraction of this material is known still to exist. The story must be the same for the vast majority of the department’s output, which only now occasionally crops up as scraps surviving from contact sheets.
This books features a number of such rarely seen curios reprinted, though they must constitute only the merest slither of what would have once existed. As the economic fortunes of the company grew more difficult after the break from its central base of production at Bray, glamour photography, centred on exploiting the looks of the film’s young female starlets became more and more common. A surviving contact sheet from a 1970 photo shoot by Mary and Madeline Collinson conducted for Playboy (in which the girls appear throughout in skimpy white undies) and which was instrumental in seeing them cast in the film Twins of Evil is included, along with less revealing glamour images of actress Lynne Frederick from Vampire Circus, photographed by Ricky Smith on the Pinewood studio set.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (restored) by Tom Chantrell - print
The famous quad poster for "Quatermass and the Pit".
Hammer artist Tom Chanrell's first-draft of this painting is
included in The Hammer Vault. It was painted before
Andrew Keir was cast in the role of Bernard Quatermass, so
Chantrell used actor John Neville as his model instead. 
Providing the painterly sumptuousness and bold dashes of colour that frequently enliven the pages of Hearn’s book, we have the gorgeous work of the group of artists responsible for producing Hammer’s distinctive poster designs, which includes names such as Bill Wiggins, Mike Vaughn and Tom Chantrell among their like. The latter Manchester-born artist figures as instrumental in what became James Carreras’ main strategy for securing American backing during Hammer’s heyday. Carreras would travel to New York for meetings with top distributors, taking with him a bunch of ideas, sometimes just titles, for which he would have  already commission lurid posters to be produced with a flourish during his meetings with these top officials from Fox, Columbia or MGM, etc. Only after securing their backing for the concept would actual scripts be commissioned and a schedule for production actually worked out. Thus it is that we find within these pages not just early drafts of later well-known posters, but early poster ideas dating from the pre-production period, when story ideas often existed as nothing more concrete than a vague concept developed with the intention of wooing distributors. Hammer became adept at forging any number of package deals with the American majors using these kinds of promotional methods and Tom Chantrell seems to have been the principle go-to man for providing the pre-production artwork chiefly responsible for developing their interest -- even after his stint as a regular poster artist for the company had come to an end.

There is some marvellous stuff included here, much of it painted in a style that was about ten times as garish and lurid as would have been allowed for the finished poster designs, and often essaying radically different ideas to that which eventually came to represent these films. There are plenty of fine examples from films we now know extremely well, such as a gorgeously ripe image portraying Doctor Jekyll & Sister Hyde (commissioned two days after Brian Clemens first suggested the title) blooming with the oily saturated yellows of a classic Victorian "pea-souper", flowering magentas and deep ocean blues. The imagery Chantrell came up with for his pre-production work on Hands of the Ripper bears such a close resemblance to the look of Jess Franco’s The Female Vampire -- depicting a nubile, bare breasted female in a long black cape slashing the throat of an equally buxom and bare breasted victim -- that one has to wonder if the great Spanish maverick had somehow seen it and been inspired by it. 

Chantrell's two early paintings for Countess Dracula – with their bilious greens splashed with sickly droplets of deepest crimson --are floridly redolent of European 'horrotica' such as the type at which Franco came to specialise; yet the films themselves of course were never quite able to match this 'artistic' level of exploitation promise: what eventually became Jimmy Sangster’s comparatively tame suspense thriller Fear in the Night for instance, started out life as something wholly more disreputable-looking called The Claw, which features another bare breasted victim on the poster art (who looks uncannily like Ingrid Pitt) being menaced and apparently throttled by an assailant with one black ‘clawed’ glove, wearing a smashed pair of dark shades as rivulets of dripping blood are smeared across the luridly rendered image. Also of particular interest are Chantrell’s radically stylised early designs for Dracula A.D 1972 (which at one stage appears to have been titled Dracula Chelsea 1972) featuring a naked, ‘hippy’, body painted model, spread-eagled, in one instance at least, across a car bonnet! Surely even more tantalising are the proposed poster designs for those Hammer projects that never came to be: the ‘tits and swords’ historical romp The Reluctant Virgin (also known as The Bride of Newgate), Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls and Vampirella all had poster art commissioned which is reproduced here.

Information about a few of the other film projects that never came to be is revealed in some especially important ephemera buried amongst the many scrapbooks of production drawings, annotated script pages, and internal memos and letters that were distributed around the casts and crew over the years, and which now flavour the pages of this book with some of its extra spice. There’s some fascinating stuff here (one particular favourite of mine is a covering letter for a script delivered by Jimmy Sangster which opens dryly: ‘Enclosed please find a script for my latest epic …’) but none so enthralling as the thank you cards, letters and pages of detailed script annotations provided in the scrapbooks of Peter Cushing, which only go to add to the impression of the actor’s consummate professionalism and gentle, good mannered civility. One of the mooted films which never in the end emerged was to have been Hammer’s attempt to create another brutal wartime drama in the style of their controversial 1958 Japanese prisoner of war film The Camp on Blood Island – a French resistance drama from a Don Houghton script entitled The Savage Jackboot, in which Hammer had hoped to cast Peter Cushing in the role of a ruthless Nazi alongside Yul Brynner and Jack Palance. Although the project never got off the ground, Peter Cushing obviously took it seriously enough to produce several inked watercolours depicting characters from the film, two of which are reproduced among these pages and reveal the actor's ever fastidious attention to detail. 

As we come to the final pages of the book, and production sketches for the Hammer/Rank Organisation remake of The Lady Vanishes heralds the end of what had often been an acrimonious family-run business thanks to the difficult working relationship endured by Sir James and his producer son Michael, who took over his father’s role as Managing Director in 1970 and bought out his share of the company in 1973 (by which time the climate in the British film industry had already become too difficult for Hammer to continue for much longer, thanks to the almost total withdrawal of American money) – Hearn’s text moves on to explore the first attempt to revive the Hammer brand name for television, which occurred when former board members Brian Lawrence and Roy Skeggs were appointed nominee directors by the company’s creditors.

Lawrence and Skeggs set up their own production company, Cinema Arts and, alongside Lew Grade’s ITC, created the fondly remembered Hammer House of Horror anthology series, reviving the Hammer family model of working by using former girls’ school Hampden House as a combined production base, shooting location and studio. Unfortunately, their follow-up, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense failed to build on the Hammer legacy and despite various announcements and attempts to revive the brand name throughout the last decade, it wasn’t until the  Dutch consortium Cyrte Investments, headed by John de Mol -- a media tycoon who was also behind the creation of Big Brother through his production company Endemol -- bought the rights to the Hammer name and movie catalogue, and appointed Simon Oakes as chairman in a bid to revive the Hammer moniker in service of its  own wish to break into feature film production, that attempts to bring about a resurgence in the Hammer brand met with any success.

Director Matt Reeves and stars Chloë Grace Moretz and
Kodi Smit-McPhee on the set of "Let Me In"
Taking a distinctive, retro, red-on-black-background sixties-style font for its attractive yet simple new logo -- similar in fact to that which can be seen on the company memos routinely issued from Hammer House during the company’s mid-sixties glory days -- the ‘new’ Hammer has itself been carefully and consciously marketed as a brand intended to appear both vital, stylish and modern while still suggesting continuity with the original Hammer’s illustrious past. So, as well as documenting the creation and promotion of the Hammer brand’s image down the years, this gorgeous looking hardback can also be seen as being part of the on-going process by which the present incarnation of the company attempts to position itself as the legitimate heir of that much-loved Hammer Horror legacy. The cover sums up the tone of this approach beautifully: the stylish new Hammer logo, embossed in shiny red, appears next to a classic poster image originally created by artist Bill Wiggins in 1958 for the Terrence Fisher film Dracula; the darkened backing for this stark-red new Hammer font meanwhile, reveals upon closer inspection a series of tinted images of classic Hammer movie posters and advertisements, by means of which the company originally founded the image that resonates still so profoundly with us today. Hearn’s text presents the Hammer legacy as one smooth, unbroken story that extends from the past right up to the present day, with the new Hammer now apparently beginning to hit its stride as audience tastes turn away from the nihilism of the torture porn genre to more thoughtful, classically influenced tales such as Let Me In -- Matt Reeves’ adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Låt den rätte komma in, which may have subsequently had much of its thunder stolen by the precedence of the Swedish language original, directed by Tomas Alfredson, but served its purpose well enough in introducing the new Hammer Productions as a dependable, classy originator of a style of filmmaking that was intelligent and contemporary but grounded in the classicism of British horror’s past. That image has continued to be perpetuated with the projects the company has selected to involve itself in promoting over the last few years – the creepy pagan rebirth horror of Wake Wood, the suspense thriller The Resident (which also brought Christopher Lee back into the Hammer fold while at the same time exploiting an international setting) and the forthcoming adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black, which promises, with its period Edwardian setting, to fulfil the duel requirements of providing the kind of English Gothic aesthetic that has traditionally always been associated with the Hammer name, while also continuing to position the company as a purveyor of a modern subtle form of horror with its roots in the classic MR James-influenced tradition which Hill’s original story so adroitly imitated with great success.

The Hammer legacy, at this present moment in time, seems set to live on for many more years to come -- and as far more than just an important part of British film history. This wonderful book demonstrates the instinct for imaginative showmanship which has always motivated those charged with carrying the torch at any one time, to continue seeking out new ways of keeping the flame burning -- and in doing so it shows us precisely why that name is likely to remain a vital part of our appreciation and contributes in a small way to that being so. Highly recommended.

Read a review of Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes at HORRORVIEW.COM

Read a review of Hammer Glamour by Marcus Hearn at HORRORVIEW.COM

Visit the Hammer films website:
Visit the Titan Books website:

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

RARE EXPORTS - A Christmas Tale (2010)

It is one month before Christmas day In the wintery heart of Lapland, and weird doings are afoot: an international mining concern, backed by a dwarfish prospector called Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen), believes it has uncovered a ‘sacred’ burial ground in the mountains: the final resting place of an evil entity who has haunted Norse legend since time immemorial. For a vast ice tomb buried 486 meters inside a snow-capped fell on the Russian border has been uncovered; the workmen on the project have been instructed strictly to abide by some very odd safety regulations, lest they stir the wrath of this legendary being: 'no cursing, no smoking …. and wash behind your ears!' – for this gargantuan frozen block constitutes the mythic ice-laden mausoleum of … Santa Clause?  
This beguiling premise informs Finish writer-director Jalmari Helander’s charming and decidedly idiosyncratic (if not downright weird) take on the art of Christmas fable-making. On one level Rare Exports is a clever, funny, oddly life-affirming satire on the wholesale usurpation and distortion of a country’s cultural history; its myths and folklore sanitised and re-packaged for consumption in the name of trans-global commercial enterprise, then presented gift-wrapped to the world as ‘tradition’. But actually it’s all done with such a delicate lightness of touch and within the framework of a lovely, offbeat coming-of-age fantasy drama, managing to retain inscrutability to the end and certainly never developing into that sort of crass and predictable brand of seasonal exploitation horror (during which, for instance, a killer Santa usually can be counted on to run amok with an axe, etc. at some stage in the game) which makes for the sub-genre’s usual approach in such matters.
Pietari (Onni Tommila) conducts his research
The real Santa Claus?
Closer to the mark perhaps is Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984): both films share a sense of mischievousness and have a wry, macabre streak at their festive core. Rare Exports tends more towards the whimsical side of fantasy though -- a kind of adult, horror-themed Roald Dahl for the arthouse crowd. But despite a small amount of gore and a bit of swearing, Helander in the end crafts a beautiful, understated family drama here -- with a rich, attractive visual palette illuminated in all the most Christmassy, winter-warming emerald and scarlet colours of the season; a film tenderly gilded and enhanced by the solitary imaginings of its ten-year-old protagonists, raised in a tough, unforgiving environment, whose escapist dreams and naive fantasies might just prove to have a patina of truth to them after all. 
Deep into the night
This movie is a Finish language feature-length expansion of two short films previously produced as advertisements for the work of a Scandinavian production company specialising in the making of TV commercials, both also written and directed by Jalmari Helander and originally released on the internet in 2003 and 2005 respectively, where they soon gained something of a cult following. Although even this fleshed out version only has a running time of about 70 minutes, the simple story brings together family drama, classic horror and children’s fantasy, and ends on a somewhat fantastical note of drollery that feels like it could’ve just as easily been the starting point for a whole second chapter rather than the film’s concluding flourish. Indeed, this is the sort of work that never fully reveals its hand or spells out every detail, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer while still evoking intrigue, bafflement and occasionally the threat of horror, as a series of increasingly strange happenings come to upset the hardy, no-nonsense world of a subsistent community of grizzled reindeer hunters on the snowy Lapland plains.
Preparing for battle
It all starts with that curious icy pit on the mountainside, and Riley’s grandiose claims for it being a historically significant discovery. Watching from behind some discarded packing crates as the bewildered foreign excavation team prepare to dissenter their momentous finding with massed dynamite blasts, are local friends Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) and his fantasy-prone companion Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila). The two kids have illicitly stolen across the fenced-off Russian border to find out what’s really been going on here on the other side of the snow covered mountain that towers above their shanty-like ‘village’ -- and it is little Pietari who interprets Riley’s speechifying to mean that the tomb of Santa Claus has been uncovered, much to the amusement of his rough and slightly bullying ‘friend’, who can’t believe Pietari still hasn’t realised that the rotund fella in red who delivers his gifts each year is really just his dad’s hirsute best friend and fellow co-worker Piiparinen (Rauno Juvonen) dressed up in a baggy Santa suit. 
Father & son
Back home, Pietari throws himself into his researches (he seems to have quite the little library stashed away in his father’s candle-lit, wood beam attic -- despite the pair living in the middle of nowhere) and discovers that the Santa Claus of Nordic myth was somewhat different to the kindly, rosy-cheeked, mince pie munching dispenser of toys and good cheer most people assume him to be: in fact, ancient Nordic Santa isn’t a very nice Santa at all, really: rather than handing out gifts, he hands out brutal punishment to naughty kids instead; and in most of the illustrations in Pietari’s books he resembles a shaggy, horned ogre  that’s often pictured plunging bawling children into his oversized cooking pot. When Pietari discovers the reindeer herds, that his father and the rest of their small community depend upon for their livelihood, have been wiped out by wolves which came down the mountain from across the Russian border and through the hole in the wire-mesh fence he and Juuso cut when they first went to visit the excavation pit (the predators were scattered there by the dynamite blasts), he’s convinced that the punishment he surely now deserves will be meted out to him by the entity that’s currently thawing out, somewhere across that icy fell.
A mysterious find
Helander shoots this opening act in the style of a particularly picturesque but otherwise quite understated coming-of-age drama, in which child actor Onni Tommila is immediately likable as the slightly pudgy faced outsider with a taste for patterned, chunky-knit wool sweaters. The snow-capped mountainous Finish landscape is Christmas card perfect, yet it’s a harsh, lonely environment to grow up in, especially when your mother has recently died and your dad (played by Onni’s real life father Jorma Tommila) struggles to communicate through his grief, retreating instead behind a veil of taciturn remoteness. At this stage the viewer doesn’t quite know whether to accept the wilder speculations and assumptions of Pietari’s imaginings: were the wolves responsible for the plains of fallen reindeer? And who or what was responsible for the footprints in the snow on the ledge outside Pietari’s bedroom window?
The strange dolls
When Pietari’s father, Rauno, and his hunting group decide to march on to the excavation site across the border with the intention of demanding recompense from the mining company for their losses, they find it mysteriously empty. Then other odd stuff starts happening: someone has stolen a warehouse full of potato sacks and left their contents scattered in great heaps across the floor of the building; every radiator and hairdryer in the district has vanished overnight; and all the kids, including Pietari’s friend Juuso, have gone missing with them -- to be replaced with a horrid-looking, life-sized doll figure that’s been left in each of their beds in their stead!

But the strangest discovery of all is to be made by Pietari himself, at the bottom of the illegal ‘wolf pit’ Pietari’s father has dug outside his slaughtering shed: the pig’s head bait dangling above it has gone, and there is something else at the bottom of the snow covered ditch full of sharpened wooden stakes -- but it isn't one of the hungry mountain wolves! Instead Pietari’s dad and his mate Piiparinen discover a skinny old man with a long white beard, completely naked and clutching a potato sack with one of the funny looking dolls inside it! At first the two men think they have accidentally killed one of the displaced workers from the excavation site, and decide to cut up the body and say nothing more of the incident. But their guest is suddenly sparked back into life when he catches a whiff of ‘child’ – for Pietari is sneakily monitoring events through the slaughter-shed window – and at this point Pietari’s dad starts to wonder whether there might actually be something in his son’s wild claims after all.

Meeting a legend?
And if this is the real Santa Claus, then maybe the rich backers of the original excavation might be willing to pay big money to get him back!

In fact, the reality of the situation is a lot more complicated than this confused band of impoverished hunters could have ever imagined. The strange events that have been occurring all around the village, and the undeniable reality of this weird, uncommunicative, naked old man with an apparent taste for human flesh, who appears all-of-a-sudden in their midst, opens up the possibility that beneath its surface the world is something other than Rauno Kontio and his colleagues once believed it to be – it’s something more akin, in fact, to the forbidding fairy tale land of dark, threatening fantasy to which his son has been attuned for some time.
A hero to the rescue
What Rauno, Pietari and the others discover when they turn up at the excavation site in a raging night-time snow blizzard, for a meeting with Riley in order to negotiate their terms for a Santa ‘hand over’, is a long way from being explainable in real world rational terms; but one gets the feeling that Pietari’s ‘frozen Santa’ narrative -- in which the giant horned resident of the ice block is being shepherded by his elfish band of ancient wizened helpers, intent on delivering the village’s children to him (it?) en masse, in sacks, for who knows what purpose, as they busily set about thawing the being to whom they are evidently devoted out of his frozen tomb by using the town’s stolen hairdryers -- provides a framework for understanding events that certainly makes a lot more sense than anything the adults -- Rauno and his bewildered friends -- are capable of concocting.

As the fantastical nature of what they are all confronted with becomes all too apparent to the group, little Pietari – once the overlooked, pushed around or ignored one in the community – suddenly becomes the plucky hero of the hour. Only he is fully prepared for this emergency -- not just in the fact that he has already come dressed like an infant warrior, clad in hockey helmet and abundant body padding, but prepared also in mind for doing battle with the forces of Christmas evil. As cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s dazzling photography -- with the aid of a small army of digital effects artists, who also helped with the distinctive visual presentation of this film -- shrouds itself more and more, come the film's final act, in its lustrous palette of tinselly Christmas wonder, it is as though the visual actualisation of Pietari’s fantasy life comes to denote his being able at last to find a way of belonging in the world, and a way to communicate with his father once again. His plan for how to deal with the apparently impossible scale of the problem confronting them all ends up making use of the very skills the hunters employ every day in the harsh winter landscape that provides them their simple home, yet only this little boy has the ingenuity to come up with that plan and to take charge of the situation, in this new world of dangerous fairy tales, let alone see the connection in the first place.
Bravery in the night

Father & son united
This film comes, then, to be about a father and his son finding each other again after a long winter of grief, while remaining shorn of the syrupy sentimentality that, at its worst, often plagues the Hollywood approach to such subject matter. The whimsical ending, in which the men of the group begin to mould their fantastical discovery into a commercially viable way of making a living, now that their livelihood as reindeer hunters has disappeared, may strike some as a touch recondite and left-field; and certainly, if this were a Hollywood feature, you sense we would have had a much bigger reveal of the giant horned thing nesting inside that ice block at some point near the end, and probably a showy, FX-heavy face-off between it and the protagonists as a conclusion, as well.
Well, thankfully budgetary restraints remove that option from Helander’s grasp, and so we just have to learn to make do with the film’s  small-scale, understated, ironic but emotionally intelligent  form of resolution instead. Oh well …!
Actually, one can almost hear the inevitable, unsubtle, broad-brush-approach English language remake cranking itself into gear, so catch this gem of a Christmas treat now, before its memory is tarnished by future lesser imitations!

TITLE: RARE EXPORTS: A Christmas Tale/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 2010/DVD RELEASE DATE: 7 November 2011/GENRE: Fantasy/LABEL: ICON Home Entertainment/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 2.35:1/DIRECTOR: Jalmari Helander/CAST: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Rauno Juvonen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi