While Santa Claus is celebrated as a jolly, bearded Coca-Cola spokesman who flies the entire globe in an evening delivering presents to well-behaved children, he and his holiday are no strangers to horror. Most genre films simply put his suit on an impersonator and have him slash his naughty list in half, but aside from Santa’s Slay, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a Christmas horror flick that actually features an evil St. Nick, let alone explores the myth or where he came from. Lucky for us, 2010 has not one, but two features that tackle the idea, the first of which is Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a feature-length prequel to two of the director’s shorts from 2003 and 2005.
A whimsical, kid-centered film along the lines of The Lady In White, Helander presents a Santa rightfully feared by children. In the business of doling out discipline to naughty children once a year, he’ll do whatever it takes, even it means kidnapping them and killing everyone in his way. Opening with an archeological dig scene that is more Raiders Of The Lost Ark than anything in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, Pietari (Onni Tommila) looks on through a fence with a friend as a rich businessman informs his workers that they are not standing on top of the Korvatunturi Mountains, but rather a burial site for something fantastical. When his father (Jorma Tommila) and a few other locals stumble upon slaughtered reindeer and some other weird occurrences, Pietari’s imagination begins to run wild and he coaxes the community adults to begin investigating. Several missing children and a captured old man later, those who are left begin to suspect that the company on top of the mountain unearthed a legend that was better left undiscovered.
Aside from f-bombs being thrown around with little regard and some old man penis, Rare Exports is very much a children’s movie, filled with a sense of fantasy and wonder that’s rarely seen in horror movies anymore. Like Lemora, its themes are far more mature than its premise dictates, and at times it feels a little forced. It’s much better at being a quirky children’s fantasy than it is at being ghoulish and gory, but it’s a lot of fun all the same, lying somewhere between a Goosebumps book and an episode of Tales From The Crypt.
While all the adults are appropriately realistic in their suspicions of what’s causing the strange occurrences and Per Christian Ellefsen is equally sinister and aloof as Riley, the American businessman, Tommila steals the show as young Pietari. With gingerbread cookies in one hand and a stuffed animal in the other, he leads the adults to a showdown with Claus and his elves like a five-star general, possessing the sort of innocent and bravery only a naïve, but smart, child could.
Rare Exports moves along at a brisk pace, running at a smidge under 80 minutes, but its stretch marks still show as it struggles to give viewers enough pieces of the Santa puzzle to keep them involved. The third act has a great twist, and the prospect of its outcome will no doubt excite viewers, but the climax you’re promised from the get-go never occurs, though what does happen – bringing a meaning to the film’s title – is more than satisfactory.
Featuring characters that can sell bewilderment for comedic and horrific moments and a script filled with childhood whimsy set in a realistic world, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is special in all the right ways. Mika Orasmaa’s cinematography is second to none, capturing the snowy mountain’s majesty and adding some subtleties to the Christmas-time mystery. Having not seen the shorts but knowing that they come after the feature, the film feels like it’s just getting started as its ending, leaving me hopeful that Helander will return to his monster movie Santa mythos.