Rare Exports is the kind of idea that should have been made a long time ago.
Most of the big Christmas horror films I can think of involve some nut stabbing people during the holidays, which is fun and all but leaves the holidays as little more than dressing for another run-of-the-mill slasher flick. Very few major horror films actually tweak with the roots of the Santa Claus myth, which can actually be pretty horrific. Legends of naughty children getting dragged away by demonic woodland spirits to be thrashed and disemboweled and cast into Hell are the kind of stories that would have terrified me as a child, yet we really haven't seen the definitive Krampus story.
Once upon a time, in a tiny town in Finland, an excavation team uncovers something terrible in the depths of a lonely mountain. Shortly thereafter, a band of hunters discover something has butchered their herds. As the mystery deepens and naughty little children disappear, one little boy follows the clues that lead him to the dark heart of the holiday season.
Thus begins the tale of Rare Exports. The whole movie has a sort of Lovecraftian vibe to it. It's all about isolated locales and ancient secrets, only the heart of the matter is jolly old St. Nick. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but the movie plays the concept with deadly seriousness. The movie isn't particularly campy or humorous and its seriousness keeps the movie engaging.
I like foreign horror films for the same reason I keep watching the travel channel: it's a great peek into the weird foibles of another culture. One of my favorite aspect of the movie is the Finlandishness of the whole thing. The film focuses tightly on a father and son who make their living in the wilderness and the chill of the countryside is almost tangible. It's rough, wild terrain they live in, and the people who make their lives there are a hardy bunch.
One of the most unsettling images in the movie are the wooden dolls left in the place of naughty children. They're creepy and primitive and brought back memories of the stick crosses from The Blair Witch Project. Looking at them, you can't help but imagine the vicious and subhuman mind that created them.
Now, while there's a lot of stuff I enjoyed about the movie, not everything worked. Spoilers here, but we discover that the creepy old man the heroes have chained up is merely one of Santa's helpers. We never actually see the Santa monster throughout the movie. It's clearly meant to be something grand and terrible and probably out of the filmmaker's budget. Still, there's a lot of tease for little payoff.
Also, the little boy hero becomes a little bit too competent and capable towards the end. He starts out as a quiet, nervous boy with a strained relationship to his father, but by the end of the film he becomes Rambo, dangling off helicopters and charging the horde of buck-nekkid Santa men. By the end of the movie it felt more like a child's wish-fulfillment fantasy than a character arc.
I don't know if this is a movie I'll keep coming back to, but I could see this being a sort of cult film. It was playing in the art house circuit in NYC when I caught it and I'm sure it will be passed from dorm room to dorm room. So, basically, if you ever wanted to see Santa Claus done properly scary, this is probably the best example you'll find.