Sinners In The Hands of An Angry Saint
That's kind of the experience with Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. It's a movie about a menacing Santa, but it's not the Santa you wanted. The trailer sells you a bag of treats -- what looks like some kind of Predator Santa stalking the naughty reindeer trappers of Finland. Instead, it's simply a dark fairy tale, with most of the major violence happening off screen. Like a father assembling his daughter's pink bicycle in the wee hours of the night, all the parts are there for a total ass-kicking gleefully gruesome time -- complete with a horde of full-frontal grizzled old men swarming around carrying pick-axes and hatchets -- but somehow the pieces aren't coming together. At the same moment the film decides to take a full-on Goonies Never Say Ho-Ho-Ho zany antic spirit and become a full-on "meant-for-kids" film is the same time the film decides to get dark and disturbing. It'd be like a group of parents standing in line for a mall Santa smirking and chuckling that "they must have hired a hobo" and "bet he knows what he's getting for Christmas -- a boner!" And then the kindly Santa gestures to his elves for "more snow" and they give him a mirror with a rolled up twenty which he snorts two lines of pure blow, shudders and gives out a Nic Cage howl, and then calls up the next child. Rare Exports is a crazy evil Santa film, but it's just the wrong kind of crazy.
Like the preferred Old Testament God, he whom we mortals deign to call Santa was once a vengeful and merciless spirit. He had curved horns and sharp nails, and would trounce through the snow barefoot to hunt down those wicked and spiteful children who hadn't been properly beaten by their parents, and deliver a reckoning. Hellfire, ye naughties, for Klaus would come with whips and scourges to bloody the backsides of the misbehaved, or he would jam them in a boiling cauldron, holding them aloft so he could relish in their screams of agony and torture. Or he and his helpers would load them into burlap sacks and cart them off to his den of terrors where one can only assume he would beat them soundly until they were savage enough to join his ranks. Coal? You only wish for coal now. This was not a Santa for the time-out, we use our words not our fists parenting. This was a Tea Party Santa.
An American businessman (Per Christian Ellefsen, Elling) drills a mountain in Russia that borders Finland, where a village of hunters and trappers wait to bring in their annual reindeer harvest. The American believes that the mountain is a great tomb that houses the frozen corpse of Santa Claus, which he wants for...well, it's never clear. Chris Columbus would have said he gotten shorted as a child and all he ever wanted was that neat-o zeppelin, Stephen King would have said his younger brother had been torn apart by a Santa that haunted an abandoned mall, The Lifetime Channel would have had the man molested as a child by an uncle dressed as Santa. Helander doesn't bother with such gaudy details.
Two boys from the village -- Juuso, the naughty one who smokes and swears, and Pietari, the good one who believes in Santa -- see them planning on blowing up the mountain. Pietari immediately knows that Santa is buried there, and that he will come for them. Juuso thinks he's a dumb kid. There's nary a woman in sight, for these rugged hunters. The trappers are preparing for their hunting season, where herds of reindeer are slaughtered like Japanese dolphins, but only two make it up the mountain. The rest are found slaughtered in the snow outside the American's fenced off compound. The hunters blame the Americans, Juuso blames the wolves, and Pietari knows it's old Saint Nick. One of Pietari's father's illegal wolf traps -- a muddy pit full of sharpened stakes covered with pine boughs and baited with a pig's head -- captures a filthy old naked man who looks more Saruman than Santa. He and his fellow hunter take him in the slaughterhouse to cut him apart and hide the body, but he's alive. They soon discover he's kind of insane, and he's haunted by the smell of children. All of whom have apparently disappeared in the night -- along with hundreds of burlap sacks -- but this doesn't apparently bother the villagers as much as you'd think. Instead, they decide to dress the old crazy bastard up like Santa and ransom him off to the American for the money they lost on the reindeer harvest.
And then things get weird.
It's impossible to explain where the film goes wrong without telling you everything that happens. So I won't. It can't ever figure out where it's a children's film and when it's not. There's a lot of screams and gasps and then we see spinning construction helmets bouncing through the snow. So we assume people get kidnapped. But then at one point we see a man with his ear chewed off, and another take a pick-axe to the top of the head. There's no large amount of swearing, a few "shits" mostly for comic value. And there's no sexuality.
But then we reach what I like to call "The Night Kitchen" dilemma. Most of the end of the film involves a gang of filth-covered old bearded men romping around completely naked. Full-frontal, penii flapping in the wind. Nobody points it out, nothing sexual happens, they're just completely feral and nude. Otherwise, there's not much happening content-wise that would make it any less gruesome than Grimm's fairy tales. Which makes sense, as this becomes in itself an adventure tale for children -- complete with a young hero swinging from a helicopter and Santa-wrangling. But it's a little like if in Beauty and the Beast, when the curse is lifted and everyone changes back, they're all fully-nude. It's logical, just like how Mowgli and Tarzan should be flapping their Bagheera's and not wearing decency cloths, but most parents frown on nudity. Just like everybody pooping, everybody's nude, but we try to discourage that. But I feel hypocritical in the wake of my rants against the MPAA getting all puritanical about eldernudes.
Suffice to say, Rare Exports then fosters an even more bananas ending. It's so unbelievably meta, I got a little dizzy and had to tuck my head between my knees. There's a lot of scorn that the real Santa was displaced with the Coca-Cola marketing ploy of the cherubic cheeked jolly man who gives soda-pops and candy to youngsters -- undoubtedly to drum up dentistry bills for Hermie -- but in some regard, the ultimate finale of the film does something similar. It's not helped by Helander's script -- which starts off subtle and silly, but then smirks and winks so hard it turns into a sneer. It's laughing a little too hard at itself, and then you realize it's screaming in anger. And nobody likes to be screamed at on Christmas.
I guess I just really wanted my Predator Santa and will have to settle for the Brothers Grimm Presents The Full Santy. Helander taunts us with the possibility of a better film -- like your father hooking up the old family station wagon and driving past amusement parks and fireworks factories to finally drop you off at The Museum of Itchy Sweaters. I kept wanting him to make the film more violent or commit to making it a children's film, or to make Santa more menacing and less cartoony. The strangest part is, he actually does all of these, which makes it an awful mess. He loads his gingerbread house with everything in the kitchen, and the end result can't help but feel like a huge disappointment. Granted, there've been plenty of homicidal Santa flicks, but this one felt so original and interesting. And it was. Just the wrong kind of original.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was admitted to a free screening of this film.