In 2003, Finnish director Jalmari Helander made a zany short film about smugglers in the business of hunting Santa Claus and inadvertently created a viral sensation. The short, “Rare Exports Inc.,” and its 2005 follow-up, “Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions,” contained a playfully inventive hook: Helander imagined Santa as a naked, bloodthirsty species far from the charitable bearded gentlemen of Christmas lore. Captured and tamed, Santas could be shipped to consumers each Christmas season and delight clueless children around the globe. By meshing action-adventure tropes with dark comedic inspiration, Helander created an utterly unique high concept premise that practically demanded elaboration. Seven years later, he has taken the inevitable next step with “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” a feature-length adaptation of the material. Although it contains the same goofy spirit, Helander fails to build on the original lunacy, suggesting that great short films may owe part of their appeal to brevity.
That does not make “Rare Exports” any less fun than its predecessors, at least for a little while. The movie technically functions as an origin story, setting the stage for the Santa export business that Helander so cleverly explored in the shorts. It opens with an excavation of Santa’s Finnish tomb, establishing a mood filled with such a familiar kind of cinematic wonder — aided by Juri and Miska Seppä’s exaggerated orchestral score, and the exoticism of the barren icy climate — that you almost expect Indiana Jones himself to waltz through the scene. Helander mercilessly cribs from the energy of kids fantasy movies from the 1980s, establishing his self-made Santa mythos with a mixture of innocence, wonder and otherworldly creepiness worthy of Tim Burton. “The Coca-Cola Santa was a hoax,” concludes wide-eyed loner Pietari (Onni Tommila), a young boy whose father owns a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the excavation site. After spying on the Americans unearthing Santa, Pietari does his homework, and learns that the creature was lured into a frozen lake by an ancient civilization. It turns out Saint Nick wasn’t so jolly, but rather a dangerous pest intent on kidnapping naughty children.
Absurd as it sounds, Helander actually manages to play it straight for much of the running time. Using a spare cast and relying more on atmosphere than special effects (the Santa creatures are, after all, just wizened old men), his narrative suggests John Carpenter’s “The Thing” for the holiday season. Sadly, the appeal of the director’s openly derivative approach grows redundant after he establishes the basic threat of Santa unleashed, and the build-up goes nowhere. Only when Pietro’s father and a colleague discover an elderly man caught in a bird trap outside, unaware of the situation at hand, does the suspense nudge upward. But there’s no follow through; we never get the chance to see the full lethal potential of the beast in question.
With hardly any of the run-and-gun entertainment or consumerist satire present in the shorts, it seems as though Helander couldn’t find an ideal strategy for expanding his initial conceit. The climax borrows the worst clichés of modern blockbusters where the earlier scenes borrow some of the best. Helander’s trite, half-baked resolution is held down by murky action and lacks a thrilling showdown. It’s like he suddenly lost a sense of humor, which demolishes the unique vision evident in the shorts. If anything, Helander should have taken even more liberties with the Santa myth and pushed the excessive genre components to an extreme.
An obvious bid for a franchise, “Rare Exports” leaves room for plenty of sequels and the possibility that Helander, a capable filmmaker with the capacity for emulating the feel of a polished Hollywood product, could nail it better the next time out. Then again, perhaps his follow-up should return to the short film realm. The flaws of “Rare Export” offer an important reminder that looking good on YouTube does not provide qualifications for a bigger screen.