In most countries, Santa Claus is a miracle man clad in red, gifting the world presents galore while spreading a special message of holiday cheer. To the Finnish, he's a shriveled creature to be feared; a "pre-Coca-Cola" Santa who enjoys spanking kids into oblivion. For there to be any sense of peace on Earth this holiday season, Santa needs to die. "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" is a contentedly macabre creation that unveils a different breed of St. Nick in this winning horror/fantasy film, which gives the jolly Christmas figure a righteously ghoulish reimagining.
Living in the shadow of the Korvatunturi Mountains in Finland, young Pietari (Onni Tommila) is starting to suspect trouble is afoot. With his butcher father (Jorma Tommila) and the locals stumbling upon evidence of slaughtered reindeer and mysterious occurrences, all evidence points to a clandestine American-led dig in the mountains that's unearthed something extraordinary in a colossal brick of ice. Freaked, but curious, Pietari probes deeper into the possible invasion with his father, discovering a weathered man with a long grey beard fitting the description of Santa Claus; unfortunately, this Santa likes to kidnap kids and tear apart those who stand in his way, compelling the locals to prep for war against a holiday legend, with Pietari taking an unlikely position of leadership.
Adapted from his 2003 short film, Jalmari Helander's "Rare Exports" takes a pleasant, but unsteady leap toward a feature-length realization. Running only 73 minutes, the picture still feels artificially stretched out, straining to collect enough conflicts that will pad out what's essentially a snow-encrusted seasonal tale of Santa's true origins. Thankfully, the blues are fleeting, especially beyond the first act, revealing a director growing comfortable with the premise, taking greater chances with tone and terror as the tweaked town comes to meet their decidedly jolly-free enemy.
Of course, nothing is exactly as it seems. The Santa myth established here is one of horror, as Pietari finds the true Kris Kringle to be a horned beast who delights in torture, buried deep inside of a mountain for a darn good reason. Once the evidence is excavated by the Americans, it's up to this little apple-cheeked boy to rally the troops and defend his land, fueled by gingerbread cookies and a thinning sense of disbelief. The cast sells the bewilderment with superlative lucidity, making for a few welcome bits of comedy to counteract the hostile atmosphere. Also supporting the fragile tone of the endeavor is cinematographer Mika Orasmaa, who lends the Finnish snowscapes unbeatable widescreen majesty, offering a crisp winter wonderland backdrop to accentuate the Christmas mood and amplify the fright of Santa's stealthy wrath.
Once the film finds its footing, Helander crafts one agreeable jolt of askew mythmaking, leading with Pietari's age-appropriate sense of wonder (he often partners up with a stuffed toy) that quickly contorts into Patton-esque leadership when local kids are kidnapped and the American base is revealed to be hiding a horrible ice-bound secret. It's Spielberg crossed with Burton, frosted with an R-rated sobriety and some needed sense of mystery. The film treats the premise as reality, giving the viewer a fighting chance to get lost in the crunchy fantasy. It's played with some amount of levity, but Helander clearly enjoys the challenge of reworking the Christmas icon to fit a more threatening age. He skims the foamy festivity off to reveal the black heart of Father Christmas. You don't want to be on his naughty list.
More consumed with providing a firm genre twist to Santa over assembling cynical, icon-smashing comedy sketches, Helander executes a wild night of reveals with "Rare Exports." The feature doesn't exactly inspire warm Christmas tingles, instead instilling the season with playful ghoulishness that reworks holiday folklore into a charming monster movie adventure.