America’s Santa Claus is not everyone’s idea of the Yuletide Night Visitor. Nor are the typical saccharine Hollywood movies about everyone’s favorite gift-giver the only such fare for the curious film fan. In 2010, two Northern European films competed to give us distinctively different versions of the Santa myth, both based on different national legends and folklore. To put it mildly, you wouldn’t want either of the guys in these films coming down your chimney or anywhere near your house.
The first film, from the Netherlands, draws on the figure of St. Nicholas, who, on Dec. 6 and the night before, brings gifts to all the good little boys and girls. Called Sint (Saint) in its native Dutch but retitled St. Nicholas over here, the film turns the goodly medieval bishop and his cadre of helpers (similar to Santa’s elves) into savage, vengeance-driven wraiths bent on bloody slaughter when the moon is full on his feast day. To the rescue come a renegade cop and a horny teenager, combatting not only the grisly visitants but also a complicit government conspiracy.
We know we’re in Amsterdam right away when, at the beginning of the movie, a classroom gift exchange among the healthy teens includes an enormous rubber dildo. A later scene features a prostitute sitting in her window, wearing little more than a Santa cap. And at the conclusion, our teen hero gets his present when his hitherto-reluctant girlfriend strips off her top and gets down to business in his hospital bed. You gotta love those Dutch!
I can’t say the same about the movie, however. Despite some competent production values and the novelty of the setting, St. Nicholas is rather dreadful, little more than an excuse for special effects (like St. Nick riding a dead horse across the rooftops), gore and lame jokes.
On the other hand, Finland’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a real jewel. Set in an isolated corner of Lapland near the Russian border, the film opens with an American company’s secret excavations into a snowy hilltop, under the watchful eyes of two local boys. Versed in his native folklore, the smaller of the two kids becomes convinced the industrialists have located the frozen tomb of the original Santa. Suffice it to say, however, that the Finnish prototype is not a jolly, pipe-smoking rotund fellow but an enormous horned monster, bent on kidnapping and mayhem rather than gift-giving and festivity.
At least that’s what the smallest boy tries to tell his dad, a lonely reindeer herder. Reluctant at first to believe the boy’s nonsense, the man is forced to reconsider reality after the season’s roundup is found horribly butchered and a strange-looking, emaciated, old bearded man is found naked in a wolf pit, apparently near death. That is, until he (or it) gets a sniff of gingerbread, and then of the boy. But that’s only a hint of this yuletide horror treat.
Both creepy and funny, Rare Exports features some stunning location scenery, first-rate production values, a clever script and winning performances, especially from a real-life father/son team as the film’s heroes. Rated R for some unexpected nudity and a bit of gore, Rare Exports is, in the end, a real family film, just not of the Disney ilk.
And like the Christmas song says, “You better watch out.”