Though director Jalmari Helander may assert that his intention with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale was to realise on celluloid the “real and original Finnish Santa Claus”, one suspects that he might have gone slightly over the top. Yes, Finland is reportedly a rather melancholy country, but it’s doubtful that even its most maudlin imaginings could conjure up a beast as fearsome as the Chris Kringle depicted here; a horned, unfathomable horror of Lovecraftian proportions served by an army of feral, naked elves with nought but murder on their feverish brains. Such nightmarish imagery, however, doesn’t detract from this strange little movie being an imaginative festive flight of fancy.
The plot sees an American drilling company unearth a monstrous secret 500 metres below a quiet rural town in northern Finland. This piques both the curiosity and concern of a Santa-suspicious young boy, Pietari (Onni Tommila), whose fears are realised when his father (Jorma Tommila) discovers something unusual in his wolf trap…
It’s a clever premise, if not entirely original; transforming Father Christmas from an obese pensioner dolling out presents to something much darker has been adopted by several slasher films (Silent Night Deadly Night, most famously), as well as a booze-soaked Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.
However, where Rare Exports rather creatively deviates from this well-trodden path is in making its Saint Nick a more mythical, folklorish creation reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth’s child-scoffing Pale Man. However, one wishes sometimes that this more fantastical horror element was pursued further; said beast is barely glimpsed during the course of the film, and one is left wanting more. Perhaps this is for the best, allowing viewers to let their imaginations to do their worst in conjuring up the true physical form of this timeless aberration while allowing the film to focus on the relationship between Pietari and his father, which affects and yet never drifts into saccharine, the real-life father-son pair sharing natural chemistry as well as bringing an excellent mix of subtlety and wry humour to their respective roles.
And it is in this humour that the film distinguishes itself most from its festive cinematic counterparts – deliciously dark to the point of nihilism and yet retaining an endearing streak of naive sincerity; one can applaud Helander’s desire to create a 1980s-style fantasy-horror accessible to both children and adults, even if its tone is undermined slightly by the worryingly frequent parade of full-frontal male nudity and the apparent naïve ignorance everyone has of the unfortunate implications of an elderly, naked bearded man constantly creeping hungrily towards a young boy.
The film drags occasionally – a few shocks, scares or set-pieces would have spiced things up a bit – but Rare Exports is certainly a likeable film, with an entertaining premise, warm characterisation and a terrific sense of humour. Though never boring, it does ultimately feel somewhat incomplete, perhaps in need of some more Joe Dante-esque menace. As such, it remains more than anything a coal-black curiosity, which one can’t help but feel could have made more of its premise.