Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander first explored the dark origins of Father Christmas in a pair of YouTube shorts, Rare Exports Inc and The Official Rare Exports Inc Safety Instructions, which follow skilled trappers in Lapland who hunt wild Santas and train them to be benevolent, child-friendly Christmas icons. This feature-length prequel shows how the business began, and reveals what the feral, naked old men who run wild in the frozen wastes actually are. It’s also an essay in the kind of kid-friendly horror popular in the ’80s (think Gremlins or The Monster Squad ), albeit with sub-titles, slaughtered reindeer and plentiful geriatric-male nudity.
Many horror films have exploited the fact that a lot of kids, and many grown-ups, are not that comfortable with a jolly fat man who comes down the chimney — from the psycho Santa who throttles Joan Collins in Tales From The Crypt, to the ho-ho-homicidal maniacs of the Silent Night, Bloody Night series. Rare Exports comes at the subject from a different angle, dismissing “the Coca-Cola Santa Claus” as a modern sham which distorts a Finnish myth-figure keener on punishing the naughty than rewarding the nice. The opening archaeological dig has overtones of The Thing, as a vast, horned creature is discovered trapped in the ice under a remote mountain and workmen are issued strict instructions about not cursing, smoking or drinking in its presence. Then, young Pietari (Onni Tommila) is the only one in a small community who guesses close to the truth when his father — cheated out of an annual reindeer hunt because something else has torn the animals to pieces — traps a filthy, bearded, snarling old man.
Like the shorts, this offers very black humour and a strange mix of revisionist mythology, gruesome horror and authentic Christmas spirit. It has a gritty, outdoorsy feel appropriate to an exploration of the brutal side of a harsh, all-male life in an extreme climate, where an ancient way of life is threatened by changing attitudes — these could be seal-clubbers or whalers. Helander also shows suspense chops in vintage John Carpenter mode — the scenes with the captured Santa, a grinning creature waiting for a chance to kill, are good, straight horror stuff, and there’s an effective climactic siege of bearded monsters.