Based upon two short films which garnered a huge amount of interest and critical praise on YouTube (and rightly so - they're very much worth watching and can be seen here and here), Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale essentially attempts to take the style of the shorts more than the premise and create a feature length story from it. Successful transition from short film to feature can be tricky, but with source material as original and well made as the two shorts, director Jalmari Helander had already done a great deal right before he even started.
The feature film focuses on a small Finnish community around Christmas time. A science team has been despatched to excavate a particular area in the local mountains, believed to be a huge burial mound. Meanwhile, Pietari (Onni Tommila) has become more and more fascinated with ancient myths surrounding the origins of Santa Claus, in which the figure is more concerned with punishing the naughty children than rewarding the nice. As the excavation progresses, strange occurrences begin to happen in the community with increasing frequency, arousing Pietari's suspicions as to who or what is buried beneath the mountains.
Helander's film deserves a huge amount of praise for its originality and execution. The story, whilst feeling a little uneven in places, is captivating throughout. The twists placed upon traditional Santa Claus iconography are inspired, putting a fresh and alternative perspective on Christmas traditions. Helander's direction fits the horror style of the story well, showing his appreciation for the genre, its conventions and legacy. The fact that the actors play everything entirely straight also helps to sell the sometimes ludicrous concepts presented in the film as authentic threats - the characters show genuine fear and uncertainty throughout, making the horror seem that much more real. The use of the bleak yet picturesque scenery of Finland as well is not just an interesting backdrop to the story, but provides a constant reminder of the unsettling spin placed upon the well-known childhood fable.
The film's main failings come from its running time, as at just under an hour and a quarter some of the character development feels rushed or unfinished. Pietari's relationship with his father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) is shown to be strained after the loss of Pietari's mother, and what we are shown of Pietari and Rauno's relationship is engaging and shows genuine talent on the part of both actors (the fact that Jorma and Onni Tommila are also father and son in real life no doubt helped with this). But the relationship is ultimately left underdeveloped, affecting the impact of how this relationship changes during the film's final act. A slightly longer running time to accommodate a few more scenes dedicated to Pietari and Rauno's strained emotional connection would have improved the film overall.
The film's climax is pleasing, although some of the shifts in character (Pietari's in particular) feel a little unlikely. The epilogue also feels somewhat disconnected with what has come before - it almost feels as though Helander wanted to finish with a strong connection to his original short films even if he had to crowbar it in slightly. In the end, however, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale's successes outweigh its failures. Crammed with imagination and originality, it's a film likely to please both horror fans and those looking for an alternative to the festive schmaltz usually reserved for Christmas movies.