Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?
With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
The likes of Black Christmas (and the far less successful Jack Frost) introduce raging maniacs to Christmas, reversing merriment and wonder with gory visions of murder and morbidity. Jalmari Helander’s Finnish language slow burn Rare Exports presents a novel approach to those same ends, entertaining the idea that the very mythology of Santa Claus has been misunderstood for hundreds of years. Kris Kringle isn’t a hokey ball of joy who rewards good children with presents. He tortures the bad ones as a wintery harbinger of vengeance and extreme corporal punishment.
If this ret-con strains credulity, fear not, because it’s prefaced by a gradual setup and an icy, drawn-out atmosphere. Two boys, Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Jusso (Ilmari Järvenpää), come upon an excavation site at the mountain adjacent to their small village where a foreign company, SubZero Inc., appears to have tracked the location of the original, demonic Santa. What follows is a slow reveal, trickling details of a murdered herd of reindeer — reindeer which three of the village’s men planned to sell for big bucks — and the capture of a gnarled and frail old man sporting nothing but a long, whispy beard and a large potato sack. When Pietari tells the village’s men these “new developments” regarding Santa’s ghastly proclivities, he’s brushed off and dismissed for spouting childish nonsense. It isn’t until the old man attacks one of the villagers that the men are finally on edge. When SubZero’s chairman, Mr. Greene (Jonathan Hutchings), comes looking to chopper out his prized Saint Nick, the men strike a deal with the mogul, unaware that the silent old man they’ve captured isn’t Santa but one of many of his “helpers” who snatch up the naughties for Santa’s sacrificial eating habits.
There are few genuine scares in Rare Exports, but Helander opts for a classier avenue for thrills, relying on suspense, a loose “countdown to Christmas” structure and a keen withholding of context to maximize the power of his climax. Enclosed in SubZero’s warehouse of operations is a giant ball of ice, with two protruding horns suggesting the company has managed to dig up Santa Claus after all. When the remainder of Santa’s “helpers” come looking for their master, Helander’s chilly, somber atmosphere explodes into chaos and blood as “naughty” folks are decapitated and maimed via surgical tactics from the evening shadows. Drawing from the adventurous tone borne out of dark mythologies in the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Helander nails a murkier “Indiana Jones” vibe — a final shot of shipping crates containing dozens of captured Santa “helpers” more than recalls the Ark of the Covenant’s uncertain fate. So much of the director’s vision (here based on a short film by Helander and his brother Juuso) is tuned and crafted for maximum suspense that a re-introduction of Santa via Pietari simply reading old books feels sloppy and circumstantial. Still, Rare Exports earns its title’s adjective for a wholly unique twist and a clever incorporation of Helander’s idea into modern Christmas tradition. Just be sure to check the beard on the next mall Santa you happen upon before getting too close, eh?
Way #2: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Way #3: Jack Frost (1997)
Way #4: Jack Frost (1998)
Way #5: Jingle All the Way
Way #6: Santa’s Slay
Way #7: Scrooged
Way #8: The Ref