Short Film Review: I Baked Him a Cake (2016) Duration: 5 min

I Baked Him a Cake - Official PosterCreating a short film that tells an interesting and compelling story within the span of minutes can be challenging. Shorter films don’t have to hold the audiences attention for as long but also have less time to develop the plot. In the case of I Baked Him a Cake, the running time of only five minutes requires that a lot of story is packed into a very short amount of time, so let’s see if director Vanessa lonta Wright is up for the challenge.

The first thing that I noticed with this film is that it’s very professionally shot and the opening scene sets the tone with some great high-contrast shots and excellent sound design. It also helps that the first shots are very engaging and leave you eager to see how it will play out. Of course, bad acting can instantly derail even the most interesting stories, especially when only two actors are involved. Luckily, in this case, both actresses do an excellent job with their respective roles and imbue the scenes with the realism, tension and underlying menace that is needed.

Everything here is competently done, so my only real complaint is that I feel like the film shies away from gore in some key places. Aside from the blood-soaked bathroom, we don’t really see any, and rather than having the opening scene represented with shadows, it would have been more effective to show a nice, graphic practical effect. I also felt that the ending was a bit abrupt and would have benefited from having a gruesome reveal to close it out instead. Obviously, these were stylistic choices made by the director, but unless there is a strong reason not to, it’s always best for horror films to really lean into the gore and violence, and it looks like this production had the means to do so.

It also could be that the film is deliberately open-ended in order to expand the story more with a future work. I’m hoping that the latter is the case, as there are a lot of questions about motivation and what happens next that would be very interesting to explore.

Thematically, the film brings up some interesting ideas such as how much influence a caretaker has over a child who must look to them to provide a sense of normality, even in a very abnormal situation. In the end, this is a short but sweet film that packs a surprising amount of emotion into its tiny runtime and actually made me feel for the character of the daughter quite a lot, which is not an easy feat to pull off in something that’s the length of two movie trailers. It also made me want to see more about what’s going on in these characters’ lives and look forward to hopefully seeing what Wright can do with a feature some day.

3-stars-red

Short Film Review: Coming Home (2017) Duration: 15 min 57 sec

ComingHomePosterWhite _July2017Even though it’s a tremendous amount of work creating a short film, it is undoubtedly a far more achievable task then attempting a feature, and a great way for indie filmmakers to hone their craft as they try to break into the business. Still, it comes with a unique set of challenges and being able to tell an interesting, concise, story in a very limited amount of time, is the most important (and difficult) of all. Given that most shorts are made independently, with very limited resources, there’s bound to be some rougher edges, but discerning audiences are willing to overlook such things as long as there is a compelling story at the core. So, does Coming Home have what it takes to be an indie short that’s worth your time? Well, lets discuss.

The story centers around a goth teen serial killer who goes by Craw (Nicholas Trivisonno) and a man named Richard (D. Duckie Rodriguez) who is trying to track him down with the help of his wife and son. The film also makes a point of explicitly letting you know that it takes place in 2003, which is curious since the date has no relevance to the plot and the entire story takes place within the same year. However, the conclusion is very open-ended and it’s possible that the date would be a factor in a sequel or if the short is adapted into a feature. I’m hoping that’s the case and the date wasn’t just put in to justify the tepid jokes about computers being “magic boxes that everyone will have someday” even though by 2003 they were already ubiquitous.

For a short film to work, it must get right into the action and immediately pull you in. Fortunately, Coming Home does just that and, right from the cold-open, sets up a world that you want to see more of. Director Shiva Rodriguez is able to strike just the right balance by naturally revealing the information you need without resorting to clunky exposition to move the story along. She is also able to imbue the story with enough mystery and intrigue to make the viewer want to watch until the very end to see how it will all play out.

Trivisonno gives a very solid performance as the emotionally damaged Craw, but a few of the other actors fall a bit short of being able to portray their characters with enough emotional resonance for the audience to properly suspend disbelief. Now, it was clearly a stylistic choice to have the first murder occur in the background out of focus, but it undercuts the power and emotional weight of the act if we don’t properly see it. If there is going to be violence in a film, it’s always better to show rather than imply unless there is a good reason to hold it back, such as keeping the identity of the killer secret, etc.

As I mentioned before, the conclusion of this film leaves the story open-ended but rather than feeling unfinished, it simply makes me want to see it continue. I don’t know if Rodriguez has plans to adapt this into something longer, or continue the story with another short, but I very much hope she does. At sixteen minutes, we’ve only scratched the surface of this world and the twisted characters in it, and when the credits rolled, all I could think was “I want to see what happens next”.

3-stars-red

Raw (2017)

RawSometimes the trailer for a film is so compelling and intriguing that you instantly know it’s a film you absolutely must see. For me, Raw was such a film and the dark, unusual, and clearly well-shot movie that was promised was one that I couldn’t wait to watch. Of course, a great trailer followed by months of waiting can certainly raise expectations for the film itself so the question is, did Raw live up to the hype and deliver on the high promise of the exquisitely made trailer? Well, lets discuss.

The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman from a strict vegetarian family, who is going off to the veterinary school that her rebellious sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf ) already attends. After being forced into eating meat in an initiation ritual, Justine soon begins to have an insatiable craving for flesh that she struggles to control. That’s about all I want to reveal about the story because, truly one of the best things about it, is the shocking twists and unpredictable plot.

What’s instantly apparent when watching this film is just how incredibly well made it is. The cast, primarily consisting of young adult actors, is absolutely flawless and their strong, realistic performances are a huge part of what makes it successful. The lion’s share of the credit, however, belongs to writer/director Julia Ducournau, who’s brilliant script and assured direction, are responsible for creating a film that is visually stunning and thoroughly compelling.

It’s utterly amazing that this is Ducournau’s debut feature because, the way she skillfully balances the elements of a coming-of-age drama that’s infused with horror, is nothing short of masterful. The story is not only very different from what I assumed it would be going in, but also remained unpredictable throughout and was certainly a far cry from what Hollywood would have done with the material. The twists in the story make for some surprisingly shocking moments and the subtext about discovering one’s sexuality (and the horrors that go with it) is expertly infused into the story.

The fact that Ducournau relied on real animals and practical effects over CGI adds to the overall realism and, while this is not an extremely bloody film overall, the gore effects that are present are pulled off perfectly. All in all, this is a film that actually does live up to the promise of it’s trailer and, although it’s not exactly a horror film, it’s a horrific and beautiful journey that is very much worth taking.

4-5-stars-red

Kudzu Zombies (2017)

KudzuNo matter the size of your film’s budget there are always challenges to face. Big studio pictures have nearly unlimited resources but the filmmakers must contend with meddling producers dumbing down their vision until it’s palatable to a wide enough audience. Conversely, indie filmmakers have the freedom to explore innovative ideas regardless of their marketability but face the challenge of attaining the resources to properly execute their vision. Despite this disparity, both indie and Hollywood films are fighting for the exact same prize, the limited time and attention of a finite number of viewers.

Considering the fact that there is no shortage of entertainment to spend our free time indulging in, why would anyone choose to watch films with inexperienced actors and homemade special effects over slick, high budget entertainment? Well, the reason you chose to overlook the rougher, DIY aspects of indie films is because they are the ones that push the creative boundaries and try daring new things that the high-budget films don’t have the balls to attempt. However, when an indie film simply tries to replicate the same generic experience of a Hollywood film, but with a fraction of the budget, you are left with a product that is truly the worst of both worlds. So, is Kudzu Zombie up to the immense challenge of not only overcoming its very modest budget but also being an innovative entry in Horror’s most over-saturated sub-genre? Well, let’s discuss.

The film tells the story of Lonnie (Timothy Haug) a crop duster who tries out an experimental new chemical at the behest of a pair of corporate scientists and, since this is a zombie film, you all know exactly how well that works out. Once the outbreak is in full swing most of the action takes place at the town’s music festival as Lonnie, his friends and the remaining uninfected must battle the hordes of the undead. There isn’t really much more to the plot than that, and that in and of itself is Kudzu’s biggest failing.

Now, let me be perfectly clear about this, if you are going to attempt to tread down one of the genre’s most well-worn paths, you absolutely must bring a serious amount of innovation to the table. Unfortunately, this film seems content with rehashing the same basic “group survival” plot we’ve seen countless times before and doesn’t even attempt to break new ground. It pays lip service to the invasive plant species the film is named after, but instead of using it as a launching point for a creative and original storyline, it is simply an arbitrary catalyst that results in a very by-the-numbers outbreak.

Okay, so even if a zombie film isn’t willing to go to far outside of the box, it should at least deliver solid, well defined characters and brutal, realistic gore. At this the film also fails, as it portrays generic, one-dimensional characters with melodramatic, cliched subplots that will only succeed in making you hate them more. There is quite a bit of blood but not much in the way of gory practical effects and the ones that are attempted stand out as fake and poorly executed. There is, however, a whole lot of bargain-basement CGI used for everything from the blood splatter, to the explosions to the cartoonish looking fire, which all seem designed to ensure there isn’t even the faintest suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience.

To be fair, in this mess of CGI blood splatter and poorly conceived characters, there are some moments that the filmmakers do pull off effectively. The part where the fire-breathing sideshow performer uses his talents as a weapon against the zombies is well conceived. Similarly, the plane propellers chopping zombies and the RPG being fired into the town are heavily reliant on CGI but still pretty cool to watch.

Ultimately, this is a failed effort, but not because the filmmakers lacked the resources to make a zombie outbreak film, it fails because every instinct the they had was wrong. They didn’t innovate when they should, used CGI when they shouldn’t, and insisted on bad jokes and melodrama in place of realistic character development. Discerning horror fans would be far better served spending an hour and a half re-watching zombie films that actually do innovate the concept of an undead outbreak like Wyrmwood or 28 Days Later than spending their precious free time on a story that’s been done to death.

1-star-red

Night Kaleidoscope (2017)

Night KaleidoscopeSome movies are created with an emphasis of style over substance, a deliberate attempt by the filmmaker to craft a compelling and surreal world that does not adhere to a standard narrative format. Suspiria, Lost Highway and Beyond the Black Rainbow are just a few examples of when this artistic gamble really pays off and pulls viewers into a compelling, living nightmare that brings you along for the ride, even if it’s not always clear where that ride is taking you. Conversely, when not done properly a lack of narrative only succeeds in creating frustration and quickly bores the viewer with a series of meaningless images. So, where does a film with a hallucinatory, dream-like style like Night Kaleidoscope fall on the spectrum? Well, let’s discuss.

The plot (such as it is) centers around Fion (Patrick O’Brien) who uses his hereditary psychic abilities (along with the unknown mystical drug he smokes) to help solve crimes. His current case involves a vampire couple that are responsible for a series of murders in the city slums. He is soon joined by Isobel (Mariel McAllan) a mysterious young woman who seems to have a personal stake in wanting to defeat the vampire couple.

First of all, I want to acknowledge the style of this film and the fact that director Grant McPhee effectively uses a variety of techniques to create an authentically surreal, dream-like experience. Quick edits, single-color saturation scenes, deliberate out-of-focus shots and a purposely shaky handheld camera all work together to deliver a fluid sense of movement that is disorienting and nightmarish in the best possible way. The pulsating and ominous 80’s style synth score that’s underlaid throughout adds to the hallucinatory effect of the film and perfectly compliments the striking visual style.

However, one key aspect that separates this film from other surreal classics like those I previously mentioned is the fact that it doesn’t commit fully to the surreal tone it establishes. Swirling, disorienting montages are broken up by scenes with more standard structure and pacing. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy in general as you don’t want to burn out your viewer with images that risk becoming repetitive and meaningless, plus it can be a good time to communicate key plot information. But, in the case of Night Kaleidoscope, this is where it comes up short because unlike films where the whole plot is up to interpretation, this one has a pretty straightforward narrative, it’s just got some holes in it.

For instance, the fact that there is clearly meant to be a greater significance to the character of Isobel but it is never properly established in the plot. This leaves unanswered questions about her connection to the vampires that feel more like an oversight than a deliberate omission. Similarly, plot threads involving Fion’s employer who suddenly wants him off the case and his “psychic drug” supplier’s motivations are not properly fleshed out. This adds to an overall feeling of characters and plot points being introduced without the filmmakers having a clear understanding of how these elements work in the context of the story as a whole.

In general, the world the film creates is certainly strange. It’s a world where there don’t appear to be any mythic creatures other than the vampire couple but their existence is instantly and unquestioningly accepted. It’s a world where psychic detectives are commissioned by mysterious clients when a murder needs to be solved and actual police never appear regardless of the amount of bodies that pile up. In most cases, people in this world also seem very complacent when faced with the threat of death from the vampires but that fact does also lead to an interesting interpretation of this film as an allegory for drug use. Although, it remains unclear if that was the filmmakers’ intention as other aspects of the plot don’t necessarily support it.

Narrative issues aside, I really can’t overstate just how accomplished this film looks visually and the fact that it was made for the astoundingly low price tag of under $5,000 makes it all the more impressive. It also shows a tremendous amount of raw talent for visual flair on the part of McPhee who is a director that one would do well to keep an eye on. In the end this makes for an experience well worth having if you can let nagging concerns about plot melt away and embrace the mesmerizing surreal imagery. Indeed, this is the kind of film that is best when consumed late at night and slightly under the influence.

3-stars-red

 

 

Flytrap (2015)

FlytrapPsychological horror is often the best route to take for micro-budget films as it places more emphasis on creating an atmosphere of dread rather than elaborate set pieces. That being said, it can still be difficult to execute properly because without the gory spectacle to entertain viewers there is a greater importance placed upon the performances and the quality of the script to keep the audience engaged. The smaller the cast and fewer the locations the more important the acting and story become. So, does Flytrap, a film with one primary location and a very small cast have what it takes to provide an hour and a half of quality entertainment? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows James Pond (Jeremy Crutchley) an English Astronomer who drives cross-country from New York City to California to take a teaching job at UCLA. He has nearly arrived when his car breaks down in the suburbs and with no cell signal to be found he is forced to knock on the nearest door and ask to use the phone. He is graciously welcomed in by the home’s beautiful but strange occupant Mary Ann (Ina-Alice Kopp) but soon finds leaving much more difficult as he becomes ensnared in a sinister plot that could effect the human race itself.

The first thing I want to say is that I think the concept itself is solid and there’s no reason that a great film couldn’t be made using it….but this is not that film. It starts off promisingly enough with an intriguing voice-over and great cinematography but after about five minutes the dialogue begins and the film takes a hard nosedive and never stops plummeting. I’d like to believe that given a better script and direction the actors here could be capable of decent performances but the writing is just so irredeemably poor that it’s honestly hard to tell. What we are left with is awkward, stilted performances that don’t portray anything resembling authentic characters and quickly become a chore to watch.

I do want to point out that I know that the performances are supposed to be somewhat off because Mary Ann and her comrades are in fact aliens disguised as humans. However, even for that, they severely missed the mark and Crutchley’s awkward performance makes him unintentionally come off as the most alien of all. What is clearly intended to come off as charmingly befuddled comes across as cringingly awkward and socially dense. Oh, and don’t worry, the extraterrestrial revelation isn’t a twist that I spoiled, it’s something that’s clumsily introduced very early in the film when Mary Ann blurts out that they’re from….(sigh) Venus. Okay, here’s a free tip for writer/director Stephen David Brooks; if you’re going to pick a home planet for aliens don’t pick one that we already fucking know can’t support life!

However, this may have been one of the film’s many failed attempts to inject comedy into the production, an ill-conceived move that proved to be the biggest detriment to it’s success by far. The attempts at humor are relentless and fall completely flat every time making for an unbearably irritating experience. Most baffling of all is the fact that so many of the “jokes” involve references to Gilligan’s Island (!). Apparently, Brooks thinks this target audience will be primarily made up of fans of bad sitcoms from half a century ago.

I also take issue with this film in any way even associating itself with the term “horror”. This is at best a weird comedy/drama with elements of a thriller that provides absolutely no tension or dread and primarily focuses on a Stockholm Syndrome induced romance between characters you will hate. And truly, this is a real shame because all this terrible, awkward dialogue is delivered in scenes that are surprisingly well lit and competently framed. This adds to the feeling that this was an enormous missed opportunity that could have had a very different outcome if Brooks had ditched the “comedy” and workshopped the script more before shooting.

I think it’s fitting that this film is posted after Romeo’s Distress on my site because they represent opposite ends of the spectrum for how a micro-budget film can turn out. I wasn’t given information on the budget of this one but it couldn’t possibly have been lower than the $2,500 spent on Romeo and that film managed to be fascinating, engrossing and highly watchable. In other words, the complete opposite of this, which can best be described as a really shitty version of Misery…..with aliens.

half-star-red

Romeo’s Distress (2016)

romeoRomeo’s Distress is a film that isn’t easy to classify as it does not fit neatly into a single genre. It’s not horror but more of a drama that’s heavily laden with dread and intrigue but also does get into more horrifying territory as it approaches the climax. As with any micro-budget film it’s success is going to be dependent on the level of innovation and creativity it brings to the table rather than high production values. So, is this film that was made for the shockingly low price tag of approximately $2,500 and shot well outside the studio system in New York state create an experience worthy of devoting eighty minutes of your time to? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows James, (Anthony Malchar) an eccentric young man that spends his time taking pictures in graveyards, playing his ukulele and trying to dodge ass beatings from an angry jock named Bobby (Adam Stordy). When he isn’t going to court-mandated therapy or taking care of his senile grandmother, he gratefully escapes into his idyllic dreams of Jane (Kimberely Peterson) the girl he professes to love. Is he just a nice, misunderstood outsider….or is there something more sinister going on?

That’s about as much as I want to reveal of the plot because this is truly a film that is best viewed through fresh eyes. From very early on, writer/director Jeff Frumess establishes a sense of underlying menace and the feeling that there is much more to these characters than initially meets the eye. Indeed, the real fun here comes from seeing where the story will go as more and more information about who these people really are and the true nature of their relationships is slowly revealed.

Romeo also succeeds where many indie films fail by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t feel cheap. In fact, Frumess’ clever use of camera technique and color palette show an advanced sensibility and serve the story very well. The film is primarily shot in black and white with a few choice scenes, such as the dreams, bursting into vibrant color. Using black and white is certainly an artistic gamble but in this case it pays off beautifully and the film would not have worked nearly as well without it. The same can be said about the camerawork which utilizes close-ups and occasional high-contrast lighting to effectively give the film a tone that is subtly surreal.

Despite one or two weak links in the casting, the performances are generally very solid and well beyond what can normally be expected from a film of this budget. Malchar, for one, does an excellent job embodying a character that is quirky and eccentric while simultaneously being filled with sad desperation and rage. The real standout in this film however is Jeffrey Solomon who brings tremendous gravitas to the role of Jane’s father, Dale. He subtly and effectively communicates a genuine sense of menace and repressed emotional anguish that is simply mesmerizing to watch.

Now, despite the numerous positive aspects of this film, it does also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of those movies that continues past the point where it should have simply stopped. I of course won’t spoil it for you with the details but suffice to say the ending only works to the detriment of the overall story. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but if the film had simply faded out two minutes sooner it would have immensely strengthened the overall production. But don’t let that deter you because, if you can find it, this is a cinematic journey worth taking and an experience that is well worth your time.

3-5-stars-red

Dark Forest (2015)

dark-forest“Are you ready for this? I’ve got a concept that’s going to blow your fucking minds! A bunch of attractive college kids go camping in the woods and then….get this….are killed by a deranged murderer! What’s that? It’s been done!? Impossible! What……how many times? Too many to count!? Well…..fuck it, let’s roll anyway!”

That’s how I like to imagine the conversation went down at Zell-Koj Studio when they decided to roll out the most well-worn concept in horror filmmaking as their debut feature. Okay, so obviously that’s not how it was but any time I hear that plot line being dusted off again it fills me with the same skepticism as when I hear someone is making another zombie film. But to be fair, there is a lot room within those basic structures to incorporate some very interesting and unique ideas. Films like Wyrmwood and You’re Next are a testament to that. So, does Dark Forest flex it’s creative muscles to bring us a fresh and interesting take on a tired subgenre or does it sink into a sea of mediocrity along with countless other forgotten slashers? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows Emily (Laurel McArthur) who goes on a camping trip with her three friends to relax, reconnect and to temporarily escape from her abusive boyfriend Peter (Dennis Scullard). When Peter learns that she has gone away without him for an entire weekend he flies into a murderous rage and quickly heads off to the woods to exact his horrible revenge on Emily and her friends.

According to Zell-Koj Studio’s own press release, this was made as an 80’s inspired slasher but I take issue with low-budget horror films that simply try to co-opt that identity in order to justify campy acting and low production values. Even though the film employs the same plot devices that have been in use since Friday the 13th, the rap/techno soundtrack, prevalence of smartphones and a music video style bikini montage give it a distinctly modern feel. Stranger Things this is not.

For the most part though, the acting is serviceable for what it is and Scullard’s portrayal of the psychotic Peter does stand out as a highlight even though he isn’t given much to work with from a character standpoint. I am certainly willing to overlook a lot when it comes to the practical shortcomings of a micro-budget film but what is particularly aggravating in this case is that the film doesn’t even aspire to be anything more than a generic Hollywood slasher with a fraction of the budget. Nothing about the film even hints at attempting to be original and even a best case scenario version of this would have been nothing more than soulless entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment value, most of the kills are solid and appropriately bloody, even if the blood itself looks distractingly fake in some scenes. Unfortunately, they are presented without any suspense or tension as Peter seems to teleport around as required to kill off the expendable characters. Now, to it’s credit, the film is competently shot but then again so is Hollywood garbage like Transformers and Big Momma’s House. Competently shot should not be the single bar that a film aspires to clear.

My hope is that Zell-Koj will branch out into more innovative directions with future projects that at least attempt to break some kind of new ground. At a time when we have a virtually endless supply of genre films to watch, filmmakers need to bring something new to the table instead of just showing up with a pale version of something we are already tired of seeing.

1-5-stars-red

The Laughing Mask (2014)

laughing-maskLet me start by saying that The Laughing Mask is actually not a horror movie in the traditional sense, more of a dark thriller with horror elements. That being said, it is certainly an alternative, indie film that remains relatively obscure, like so many other micro-budget titles. So, the question is “Is this film a hidden gem that deserves to be uncovered or just another run-of-the-mill low budget flick drowning in a sea of it’s peers?” Well, let’s discuss.

The plot centers around the exploits of a mysterious vigilante killer known as “The Laughing Mask”. Jake Johnson (John Hardy) is a writer who’s wife was murdered and daughter abducted by said vigilante and has now written an inflammatory book on the subject in hopes of drawing him out into the open. Homicide detective Katherine O’Malley (Sheyenne Rivers) is also relentlessly pursuing the Mask in hopes of stopping his onslaught of murders as well as figuring out the deeper connection between them.

There are certainly a lot of things to like about this film. The Laughing Mask himself is an interesting character, a well-dressed psychopath with a creepy mask and a penchant for depression-era music. I also enjoyed his lair where he doled out his own brand of vigilante justice to guilty people who have skirted legal ramifications, via elaborate punishments based on their crimes. In addition, the use of creepy, old timey cartoons intercut into a few scenes actually works quite well as does the early twentieth century music that plays throughout. The film also doesn’t shy away from brutality and features numerous bloody kills.

Unfortunately, these positive elements are overshadowed by large, fundamental problems with the film itself. The most glaring issue here is the acting. Hardy actually stands out as the only one from the principal cast able to really deliver a believable performance. Most of the other actors sound like they are doing their first ever table read of a script and their stilted performances destroy any chance for the audience to suspend disbelief. This problem is only made worse by scenes where writer/director Michael Aguiar attempts to inject humor or snappy dialogue into the script, which inevitably fall flat. I also had some big issues with the flawed ending but going into further detail would require revealing major spoilers.

There is definitely some fun to be had with this film but ultimately with pacing that drags far more than it should and a lack of realistic characters to engage with, this film falls far short of what it might have been. With some more attention given to the script, as well as the casting, a very different outcome could have been produced. As it is, I don’t see The Laughing Mask breaking out of it’s obscurity to become a cult hit any time soon.

2-stars-red

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

rare-exportsWhen creating a Christmas-themed horror film there are certainly a lot of different approaches you can take. Perhaps the most interesting and unconventional though, is the storyline for the Finnish film Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, which goes far beyond the standard Santa-themed slasher to bring you a story that is relentlessly bizarre and incredibly engaging.

High in the Korvatunturi mountains a foreign company unearths the ancient, frozen body of the original Santa Claus. However, this creature is a far cry from the jolly, westernized version of the endlessly generous elf that we’ve all come to know. This Santa doesn’t just give presents, he also demands the blood of the children who have misbehaved and with his army of creepy elves at his command he’s sure to get it. Now, it’s up to a young boy (Onni Tommila) and a small band of reindeer hunters to try and save Christmas, and the world, from Santa Claus.

While the idea of Santa as a demonic, otherworldly creature that rewards good children and severely punishes the bad may seem strange to many American moviegoers it certainly wasn’t created in a vacuum. The film itself was actually preceded by two shorts by writer/director Jalmari Helander Rare Exports Inc. (2003) and The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions (2005). It also draws inspiration from classic figures of European Christmas mythology such as Joulupukki and Krampus.

Right from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a well-made film. Despite the very modest budget of 1.8 million Euros it boasts gorgeous cinematography, flawless performances and high production values. As the wonderfully strange story unfolds, Helander immerses the audience in the bizarre and surreal world he has created with well-defined, unconventional characters and an unpredictable plot that will hold your attention throughout. This is a clear example of an artist-driven project that was created without the kind studio tampering so prevalent in Hollywood films, which is why this is far more entertaining than the cheap clutter that litters much of the American box offices year after year.

Now, I should mention that this is by no means a straight horror film but rather a bloody, genre-blending mix of horror, fantasy, thriller and comedy elements that make for a unique experience that is well worth the time. So, strap on your kengät and put the Reikäleipä in the oven because it’s time to indulge in some quality entertainment from the land of reindeer. A rare export indeed.

4-stars-red