It's cool and I like it, but I prefer the version of it that's in my head.
It's an Evil Santa story. It's set in Finland, where an American thinks he's found Santa Claus buried inside Korvatunturi mountain. What's more, he's right. The jolly red guy's down there all right, although you're going to have to dig the mother of all holes to get down to him. Unfortunately "jolly" doesn't describe him very well, since this is the Santa of ancient folklore. What he used to do to children, for instance, is enough to make one wonder why the Finns aren't extinct.
"Red" is a good word, though. "Red" will do nicely.
The good news is that this is a twisted little fable with genuine scares, courtesy of Santa and his elves. When you're looking at someone who'll bite a broom handle in two and chew people's ears off, you really don't want to see people getting close to his teeth. There's a stunning monster movie in here, waiting to get out.
The setting also adds a huge amount. If you think Christmas means snow, this will send you apeshit. Finland crosses the Arctic Circle and so everyone has a snowmobile and a big gun. There are wolves. It's on the Russian border. This feels like a frontier life, with a carnivorous attitude and no room for squeamishness. Everyone loves reindeer, for instance, but not because they're cute. "Our freezers will soon be brimming with meat!" You could do this as a Western, with gun-toting locals who don't rely on anyone, but instead have to go out and do everything for themselves. It's a man's world, if only because the film has chosen to include absolutely no women. One character sometimes mentions his wife and her lost hair dryer, but of the people we see, all parents are fathers and all children are sons.
Finally and no less importantly, we have kids. If you're going to do an Evil Santa story, you need children. You wouldn't get the right resonances without them.
These are all great ingredients. It's easy to have a ball just from being in this world, since it feels like exactly the right place for finding this kind of Evil Santa. Let me put it this way... the first thing our hero's dad (Jorma Tommila) does on-screen is dig a pit trap with sharpened stakes at the bottom. It's harsh and down-to-earth, for instance having lots of Scary Old Man Nudity and making it simply feel like the way the world works. The ending is twisted, I adore their monster and I got the creeps from those wooden fetish dummy things.
That said, the film makes choices that I'm not sure about. I'm not saying it's wrong to do so, mind you. The actual film is more original than the one in my head, which is a bit like Terry Pratchett's Hogfather
. This is a very distinctive film and I'm in no way calling it bad. Nevertheless...
1. As a monster movie, it sucks. They have a wonderful monster, but then they don't let it Godzilla the joint up. The secret here is that the film's based on two short films that used the same idea, called Rare Exports Inc (2003) and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions (2005). In these, three Finnish hunters went hunting wild Santas in the forest. They're funny and I recommend them. This film is basically a feature length reimagining and it brings back the same core cast (Onni Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Jorma Tommila), except for Tazu Ovaska because he's really camera crew rather than an actor.
This, I think, is what gives the film its unexpected focus. It's about its main characters. This might sound unremarkable, but it's unusual in a monster movie, which is a genre in which humans are essentially walking meals.
The result of this is that the monsters get short-changed and that the ending makes no sense at all. It's taken from the short films, you see. Being complete bollocks also makes it cool, because that just makes it twice as twisted, but honestly. That makes no sense. It worked in the short films because those were out-and-out comedies and you bought it as part of the comic set-up, but this film is on a more realistic footing and so the finale's ludicrous. Why not just sell cyanide to little kids and be done with it?
However this objection could be overturned in its entirety if Jalmari Helander ever made Rare Exports 2, followed up properly on the implications of the ending of this one. You could go berserk with the carnage. If you wanted monster movies, that would be it.
2. They fail to follow up on their own Christmas rules. They float that boat, but then sink it again. The film plays with ideas of Santa punishing naughty children and in particular, early on, has the boss of the American excavation posting a list of safety rules. The third one is "no cursing". Later we see someone swear on-site, after which bad things happen. This is cool. I loved this. However after a while the film completely forgets about it, ignoring the "naughty vs. nice" issue and even having someone swear and not die in front of Scary Naked Old Man.
Overall, it's a fun film. It creates a vivid world and a mood all its own. I wouldn't show it to younger children, but they could probably handle it if they're okay with Gremlins. You'll find it creepy as hell, though. It's a bit slow, but you've got to love the basic idea of the film and they play it straight and hard. It's not camp or silly. How many Christmas movies show the hero's dad hacking up a pig carcass with a machete, for instance? I'd have liked the film to do a couple of fundamental things differently, but the fact that I'd have preferred a slightly different movie shouldn't blind me to the fact that the one I watched is pretty good.