Rare Exports is a film which dares to work the Santa Claus mythos over as if it were a ball of incomplete Play-Doh. This isn't completely untrodden ground, as filmmakers have tried to warp our Christmas spirit before. Santa's Slay is a prime example of a basic twist on the classic Jolly one's true nature, but that's mostly a surface level makeover. Don't mistake that brush off as a slam; Santa's Slay is way more fun than any Bill Goldberg vehicle deserves to be and has become a yearly Christmas time tradition at my house. But it doesn't go as deep in reimagining Santa as other films have.
Rene Cardone Sr.'s 1959 Mexican nightmare fueling Santa Claus leaps way over that red and green garland, landing squarely in the holiday scenescape of madness. Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans surely recall this strange odyssey, which teams Santa up with Merlin as red, white, and tubby battles minor demon Pitch for the soul of a little girl. A yearly seasonal classic in Mexico, Santa Claus will unnerve your entire straight-laced family, and ensure that they will never let you choose which holiday film to watch ever again (true story).
But if even that stripper slaying Santa fails to shock your family, or if you've got this peculiar holiday itch to scratch, Rare Exports has got you covered like a red-with-white-trim jimmy hat. Finland's Jalmari Helander has committed to celluloid a strange foreign permutation on the Santa mythos. If we're being completely forthright he's got more right to bring old Saint Nick back to formula, coming from the Scandinavian/Germanic regions from which our modern legends propagated. For our delight, shock, and amazement, the team behind Rare Exports reveres no sacred cows, twisting around existing legends into something more ancient and sinister. In this way, it's very much like a Hellboy tale- which is fitting given the ginormous curl of a certain entity's horns. I'm about to unleash unbridled spoilers, so those with intact Rare Exports maidenheads will want to look away, but before they do I feel it's my sworn dude duty to caution all potential viewers that this film does contain quite a large quotient of old dong.
Now with that qualifier out in the open, let's lay Rare Export's dangling fleshy cards on the table. The narrative follows the lifelong obsession of an industrialist hell bent on finding the actual Santa Claus. To this end he's employed an excavation company to blast the top off of a mountain, which just so happens to be the burial mound of Santa. Or is it a prison chamber? As the young protagonist Rauno discovers, the ancient indigenous people could stand no more of the vicious being "Santa". Trapping him in a frozen lake, they surrounded him in an insulating layer of sawdust while building the mountain around him. Of course the industrialist, blinded with Kringle lust, misreads the sawdust as the byproduct of rampant toy manufacturing. He's not all bluster and blunder, however, as a safety card he's distributed to the workers instructs them not to curse or be naughty on site, as it could rouse the punishment of old St. Nick. They don't obey, throwing caution and curses to the wind, and pay with their lives.
Rauno and his father capture the being unleashed, an emaciated old man who is long of beard and possessed of a wicked gleam in his eye whenever children come too near. Meanwhile all of the other village children have disappeared. This is where things become interesting, as the mythology is thrown into a cocked hat. This strange old man is what we've physically come to associate to Santa (minus the type two diabetes), but it is really only one of his elves. There are nearly two hundred of these white bearded old elves, which would go a long way to explaining how the Santa of legend would be able to service so large a population on one night (a conclusion one of the characters comes to). These Santa stand ins are capturing all of the naughty children to sacrifice them to the jolliest old elf, while at the same time stealing any and all heating elements to defrost the boss.
The real Santa is actually a three story tall ice block with massive curled demon horns protruding. We never actually set eyes on him, but the impression is one of Hellboy with his horns intact or perhaps Krampus. And just like that the skewering of old folklore takes on a wickedly humorous glint. Rare Exports posits that we humans remembered it all wrong; that Krampus is really the one in charge and that our "Santa" is actually his collection of wicked, child obsessed elves. "But Santa loves cookies and coming down my chimney!" you cry in faux outrage. Firstly let me counter that it's statistically unlikely that you have a chimney. Secondly writer/director Jalmari Helander has constructed his film with a layered complexity which takes all of the little Kringle tidbits into the weaving of his tale. The elves are compulsively addicted to ginger snaps, which are apparently the closest these reindeer herders come to our sugar and fat packed American cookies.
The final humorous twist is the eureka moment which give the quizzical title clarity- with the demise of satanic Santa, the formerly murderous elves become docile creatures. And with a year now looming before Christmas comes again, our entrepreneurial reindeer wranglers set about the task of training them in the mannerisms of mall Santas- to be sold and employed world wide.
Isn't it time you took a new look at the legends which we so blindly take for granted? Rare Exports thinks so. Even better still, this title is available to stream instantly on Netflix, and makes a great foreign dubbed double feature with Dead Snow.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania.com, writing Shock-O-Rama. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. An avid beer brewer, rock climber, and video gamer, you can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek.