Imaginative and twisted in equal measure, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" holds such a neat premise that it's a little disappointing first-time feature director Jalmari Helander doesn't go further with its countless exciting possibilities. Based on his own 2003 short film entitled "Rare Exports Inc.," this fantasy-horror-adventure amalgamationa sort of Finnish-made "Gremlins" for the twenty-first centuryproposes that the fat, jolly version we all know of Old St. Nick is simply a fictionalized concoction by the Coca Cola company to cover up the existence of the real Santa Claus, a horned half-man/half-beast more threatening than nice. Prior to this, has there ever been a movie that dealt with the real story behind this symbolic figure of Christmas? For that alone, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" is something of a novelty. At less than eighty minutes sans credits, it also could have been afforded some further expansion and a deeper exploration. Helander ultimately only scratches the surface of a stupendous idea.
Sitting on the border of Russia and Finland are the Korvantunturi Mountains, said to be the place where Father Christmas lives. When a drilling team comes upon sawdust sixty-five feet deep, they are urged to delve beneath it. What they discover is the burial site of Santa Claus himself, frozen within the giant mound and still very much alive. Not realizing what has been going on beyond the fence that separates his home from the mountains, widowed hunter Rauno (Jorma Tommila) finds the carcasses of 433 reindeer and figures it is the doing of a dangerous pack of wolves. His curious young son Pietari (Onni Tommila), however, knows better, having spied weeks earlier on the drillers. When a trap to catch the guilty party turns up an older bedraggled gentleman who is wounded but still alive, Pietari is certain of his identity. With Christmas Eve well underway and the rest of the children in town kidnapped and sacked in the night, it soon becomes clear to all that Santa's elves have begun carrying out their captive master's work.
A Christmas movie with few of the typical cinematic customs (i.e., holiday music, gift-exchanging, soft and fuzzy emotions), "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" gets down and dirty as it seeks to depict a more honest, unsentimental vision of the holiday as it is viewed and celebrated in Finland. Precocious Pietari and father Rauno are the protagonists, again a little rougher around the edges than usual movie heroes. Pietari is smart and quick, but also hard-headed, while Rauno is tough and brutishly commanding even as one can see that he does, underneath the gruff, love his son. These two aren't the easiest of characters to fall in love with, but they suffice since the story is the main attraction. Real-life father and son Jorma and Onni Tommila are inconsistent in their performances, but convincing in their roles all the same. The younger Tommila has an especially memorable face ideal for this kind of film, mixing generous wonder with fright.
Foreboding and anarchistic in nature, the narrative piles on a series of clever plot curves while craftily raising the stakes with the disappearance of the town's children and the onslaught of elves who come knocking. Meanwhile, an unexpected key revelation concerning something else frozen in a block of ice threatens to take things to an entirely new level only for director Jalmari Helander to wimp out and pull back. This tease of things to come feels like a trick once nothing is done with it. The same could be said of the elves, which, once they show up, don't really fulfill their potential.
"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" is restrained as a horror film, but still occasionally goosebump-inducing; a shot of the imprisoned, malicious-looking Santa fitted in his red suit and sniffing Pietari from behind his bars is the stuff nightmares are made of. Sure to work well for older kids (maybe around twelve and up), the film is most admirable for its atmosphere and visuals than for its script or dramatic force. Special effects are used sparingly, but effective when they do show themselves, and the plot, no matter how underdeveloped it turns out to be, is still pretty damn ingenious. While an English-language remake would normally sound like a wretched idea, it might actually help to build upon this original version, hampered, one suspects, by a limited budget. Indeed, there are parts that look every bit like a major Hollywood production, but the brief, streamlined nature of the finished product suggests corners were cut. No mind. For viewers seeking a festive picture for the holidays that proudly deviates from convention and expectation, "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" will certainly fit the bill.