Evil Santa: *Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale*

I had been looking forward for quite some time to seeing this strange-sounding Finnish film, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a sort of Finnish Santa Claus horror movie.  Very high-concept: evil Santa (one-upping Bad Santa).  Brief synopsis from Wikipedia:

The film focuses on a group of local reindeer herders whose Christmas is disturbed by excavations on the mountain. A scientist has ordered a team of workers to dig open what he calls “the largest burial mound in the world”. An explosive used by the team uncovers what is referred to as a “sacred grave”. However, the occupant of the grave is still alive. Soon, the reindeer important to the local people are mysteriously killed, and children and supplies begin to disappear from the town. It emerges that the occupant is the source of the original Santa Claus myth; a supernatural being who, rather than rewarding good children, punishes the naughty. One family, however, manages to catch the culprit in a trap, and plans to sell it to the scientist to cover the losses caused by his excavation.

The movie reminded us in various ways of the great Trollhunter (here’s my earlier commentary on that one): a smart & scrappy low-budget Nordic independent film that draws on indigenous mythology & folklore in clever ways to make a fresh kind of American-style action/horror genre film.  Rare Exports is not quite as thoroughly excellent as Trollhunter, IMO, and is a bit more of an extended high-concept joke.  “Evil Santa Claus as Finnish legend” is a good enough joke to sustain the movie, though.

I read the film as being an allegory about Finnish/ Nordic cultural production and “exports” in a global cultural marketplace.  It begins with young Pietari and his friend Juuso peeking through a fence at a group of Americans conducting an high-tech anthropological dig with explosives.  There’s an evil-seeming group leader with a strange pseudo-American accent whose manner suggests that there’s something nefarious going on.  Meanwhile we learn that Pietari lives alone with his angry single father Rauno — the mother has died — and that the family subsists on reindeer herding and hunting.  First, a vast herd of reindeer is found slaughtered, apparently by wolves, but what kind of wolves would kill so many deer indiscriminately and leave the corpses untouched?  Next, the town’s children (including Juuso) start disappearing.

Pietari, who has a bedroom filled with books about Finnish folklore, has a better understanding than anyone else in the town of the old legends of an evil, terrifying Santa Claus figure who was buried in the ice by Laplanders thousands of years ago.  The rapacious Americans have hatched a plan to dig up Santa for profit– but where did Santa go?

So, we have a closed-off, local, indigenous Nordic community scraping by on traditional pastimes, particularly hunting reindeer.  In a globalized 21st century run by multinational corporate types like the Americans, this is not sustainable (not much of a market for reindeer, which is local and Finnish in ways that don’t translate or “export” well).  The American crew plans to swoop in and steal local Finnish culture (in the form of Santa Claus) to monetize it for an international market.  But a scrappy, abandoned Finnish boy and his angry father save the day by using their wits and strength and understanding of local traditions to seize control of their own native culture for themselves, thereby gaining economic self-sufficiency and healing the wound left by the absent/dead mother (= an original older form of local culture, pre-globalization).

This is a spoiler: In the movie’s surprise ending, son and dad and a friend package Santa (sort of) and his elves and literally ship them off to a global audience that is eager for examples of authentic local culture.  This seems a pretty direct allegory of the film itself.  The rapacious Americans represent global/Americanized popular culture, which strip-mines the world’s heritage and profits from it.  But resistance is possible for those who can combine techniques, forms and methods from that 21st-century global pop culture (e.g. Hollywood-style horror/suspense genre film tropes) with authentic, rooted local materials (e.g. the Finnish folklore that goes into the film).  So when Pietari and his dad are boxing up the elves for export, they represent the filmmakers themselves, Pietari embodying a new generation of Finns who can break free of old assumptions of what constitutes tradition (i.e. his father’s previous belief that hunting reindeer is the only way to make a living) and find savvy ways to market their heritage in forms palatable to the new global world.  (Of course the critique would be that in this process, the putatively authentic culture gets homogenized, rendered bland: no more truly scary Santa Claus.)  A clever horror film proves a more sustaining way to put food on the table than reindeer meat.  And these local reindeer-hunters transform themselves into savvy global marketers, a bit like the kinds of entrepreneurs who figure out new ways to export local/native crafts or artwork for the 10,000 Villages kind of marketplace.

You could think about the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In as an example of this dynamic, too.

I also have to cite this amusing Netflix review by an aggrieved defender of Santa, Christmas, and Christ:

Horrible film. Whoever created this film sure has a beef with Santa Claus. … Santa Clause and his elves are depicted as creepy, skinny, buck naked, evil beings. Hmmm, Santa Claus historically is part of the celebration of CHRISTmas and if Santa Claus is evil then….. Poor Santa gets a double whammy, first he’s evil and at the end of the film, he’s massed produced (a market commodity) on an assembly line and “programmed” by the boy who makes these Santas into droid-like Santas. If you don’t BELIEVE in CHRISTmas or Santa and want to strip your child of the pleasure, magic and joy of Santa and the hope, joy and love that CHRISTmas brings to the world, here’s your film.

Actually this reminds me that Trollhunter had an interesting anti-Christian theme to it (the trolls despise Christians; of course one could possibly interpret this as pro-Christian, defining them as martyrs, but I don’t really think it plays that way in the film).

Here’s the original 2003 short film that was the first version of Rare Exports– more sheer comedy/satire: