Making holiday themed horror films is a very tricky things. Everyone wants to be Black Christmas, a film which not only jumpstarted the slasher film wave, way back when, but also set the tone for an entire genre to follow (though it was largely eclipsed in popular memory by the equally influential Halloween-which, ironically, borrowed heavily from it). Mostly what you end up with, though is Silent Night, Deadly Night, films which exist only to wring some money out of saps amused by the notion of a holiday themed horror film. Christmas horror is especially tricky, what what millions of concerned moms (or a dozen or so with a bank of fax machines) ready to pounce on anyone who dares to show less than due deference to their narrow, easily offended views. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining why so few film-makers show anymore ambition than what it takes to create a Thankskilling.
Rare Exports opens with an American mining crew excavating Korvatunturi mountain near the border between Finland and Russia, allegedly for minerals, but in fact in the search for a tomb deep in the heart of the mountain. Their actions are noted by Pietari and Juuso, local boys and sons of reindeer herders. Pietari is afraid of Santa Claus, having read up on ancient legends which paint him as a monstrous child-killer, and becomes convinced that the tomb belongs to Santa. Meanwhile, the adults of the community are disturbed to discover that something has slaughtered their entire herd of reindeer, leaving the community $85,000 short of what they needed to survive the coming year, and blame Russian wolves driven into their territory by the mining. On Christmas Eve, a naked man wanders into a pit-trap dug by Pietari’s father. Uncommunicative, but strangely interested in Pietari and gingerbread, the disappearance of all the local children goes unnoticed, as the adults decide that the man must be a miner, and decide to ransom him back to his employer. It’s only Pietari’s insistence that something more sinister is going on (such as the disappearance of every other child in their community) that convinces the adults that they are, somehow, holding Santa Claus prisoner. When they do take “Santa” to the mining site, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone involved has badly misunderstood the actual situation, leading to an apocalyptic conclusion and a new lease on life for the community in a curiously cynical yet uplifting ending.
Rare Exports veers more towards the “dark fantasy” territory for horror films, which is appropriate, as the entire enterprise is essentially a long set-up for a punchline. It’s never particularly scary, or creepy, but the “twisted fairy tale” tone is enough to propel the plot forward. It’s also not particularly funny, save for the punchline aspect to it. It also flirts with several themes that never quite get fully developed. They hint at a conflict between the “modern” world as represented by the mining company and the traditional world represented by the reindeer herders, with the truth about Santa serving as a reminder that “tradition” has its unspoken problems, but it’s never fully developed. There’s some father/son conflict suggested in the relationship between Pietari and his father, but again it’s never fully developed, and is ultimately resolved when Pietari puts away his childhood toys and becomes a man symbolically by conquering Santa. Despite these issues, the film is ultimately fun and clever, and moves briskly. It feels a bit short in fact, which also contributes slightly to the underdeveloped feeling the plots and themes present, but is ultimately a rewarding watch.