In the frozen tundra of northern Finland, an excavation turns up what appears to be a giant burial mound. Pietari, the son of a widowed reindeer hunter and meat butcher, isn't exactly keen on what lies under the mound. None of the other children in his village will believe him, but the dusty books in his attic tell exactly what's buried there: Santa Claus. It's not the Saint Nick we all know, either. Santa is in reality a giant, horned demon who cooks and eats children he deems as naughty. Unfortunately, the definition of "naughty" is exceedingly broad for Santa.
Adapted from his 2003 short film, Jalmari Helander's RARE EXPORTS reminds me of SANTA'S SLAY, in that both involve a demonic Santa who is anything but nice. Granted, RARE EXPORTS doesn't have Goldberg lighting Fran Drescher's hair on fire or kicking the crap out of Chris Kattan, but that's beside the point. What RARE EXPORTS is is a monsterish take on Santa that's far and away from the kisch and cheese of your usual killer Santa fare.
Rather than busting out the effects, RARE EXPORTS instead relies on the time-tested vehicle for drawing viewers in: atmosphere. Just like John Carpenter did with THE THING and the beautiful British Columbian landscape, Helander tells his story by utilizing the equally-beautiful Finnish landscape to its fullest. In doing so, it's as if Jalmari and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa make the landscape a character within the film. Of course, all this does is add to the sense of dread and isolation, which is so key in films like these. Also, rather than relying on effects once again, Helander goes for another staple of effective low-budget affairs, in that the simple stuff is often the most effective at creeping out the audience. Little things like footprints on the roof during one moment ramp the tension up so well.
The big thing that separates this film from the jokey killer Santa flicks is the idea that everyone takes things seriously, and part of that involves a cast that makes it believable. Our protagonist, young Onni Tommila as Pietari, sells it quite well. You feel his frustration in the fact that no one believes what he says about the thing that's buried in the ice, along with his fear of that thing. Pietari's interaction with his father, Rauno (played by Jorma Tommila) is also a treat. The two play off each other nicely, with Jorma coming across as being both the fearless butcher while also being the overprotective yet well-meaning father. To add even more dimension to Rauno, there's a brief mention of his deceased wife, which has Rauno becoming sad and reflective. Unfortunately, this brief mention is all there is of his wife, which is also the downside to the film.
In expanding the film's script from its seven-minute origins, you can tell some things didn't quite fit. As mentioned above, the relationship between Ruano and his deceased with is really only touched on for a moment, then quickly dropped. Secondary characters also suffer with a lack of development. Comparing these guys to the group in THE THING, there's no question that there's something missing in RARE EXPORTS. Probably the most glaring of the script's weaknesses is the film's left-field ending. Sure, it's out of nowhere, and there's a great buildup to it, but once it hits, you can't help but feel disappointed with the results.
Still, there's a lot to love about RARE EXPORTS. The atmosphere is great, as is the reliance mainly on the subtle rather than the expensive CGI. Plus, it's a take on a darker Santa that's serious. I know, there are those that want to see more SANTA'S SLAY type of films, but if you want that, go watch those types of films. This is a genuine psychological horror effort that's incredibly well shot and imaginative, and will no doubt make a perfect addition to your holiday horror marathons.
While the script stumbles a bit, the film's immense atmosphere and solid protagonist make up for it. RARE EXPORTS is one that isn't a gorefest, but will creep you out and make you think about leaving the fire going on Christmas Eve.