Far away in Lapland a British research team, Subzero, is examining drilling specimens on top of Korvatunturi (Fell Ear). The evidence is clear. The entire fell is an ancient burial mound built by the Saami for centuries, inside which something is hidden. As the men begin to excavate, two boys, Juuso and Pietari, sneak to eavesdrop at the team's discussions, led by a researcher, Riley. The children run to Juuso's snowmobile and quarrel about Santa Claus's existence, but were interrupted as the research team detonate the fell. Pietari returns home to read some books about Santa Claus, which suggest that he was a horned being who whips misbehaving children and boils them in a cauldron.
The day before Christmas Eve, Pietari's father Rauno, a local reindeer slaughterer, digs a trap pit in the yard to protect the remaining reindeer in case of wolves. He wakes Pietari up by shooting at his window and tells him to prepare for rounding up reindeer herds with the other herders at the electric reindeer pen. This year, there were only two skinny reindeer runts, so Rauno and the herders go to a glacier by Korvantunturi. When they reach there they find the remains of hundreds of reindeer that were gnawed to the bone. It looks like the explosions that have been going on at the fell for months have driven the wolves in the area mad. Rauno, examines the carcasses worriedly. Farther away Pietari too examines the traces and is convinced that it's not the work of wolves, while Juuso warns him not to tell his father that they plied open the fence to Korvantunturi.
Rauno's reindeer slaughterhouse has been on the brink of bankruptcy for a long time. The attack of the wolves seems to be the final straw. But Rauno has one more chance. He heads to Korvatunturi to demand retribution from the Subzero company, whose personnel were killed for provoking a mysterious new threat by their rude behaviour. On the top of the fell all Rauno and his group foundnd is a pit 400 meters deep and no trace of the Subzero personnel. It looks as if something was lifted from the depths of hell. Having lost all hope Rauno returns to his farm.
On the morning of Christmas Eve the trap has worked, but there is no wolf trapped in it. Even though Pietari was grounded for playing a trick with his father for using reindeer traps in the fireplace, he has been full of fear of the approaching Christmas, like an animal sensing a more powerful beast in its territory. He sneaks out of his father's house to a police truck, with his disappointed father in hot pursuit. They reach a village, where Rauno hears from other villagers that sacks of potatoes, heaters, and Piiparinen's wife's hair-dryer, had went missing. Pietari enters Piiparinen's house, and finds that Piiparinen's son Juuso is also gone, with a straw effigy in his place.
Piiparinen brings a sack, which contains a skinny old man, and leaves his inactive body on a table in Rauno's reindeer slaughterhouse. While he, Rauno, and Aimo discuss their plans, Pietari calls his friends on the telephone, and finds that they have all went missing. Piiparinen teases the old man with a piece of gingerbread, and the old man bites off his ear. Piiparinen comes out and asks the other two men to come and see the old man. Pietari asks his father to spank him for his bad deeds, such as plying open the fence to Korvantunturi, as he feared that the children's bad deeds might have caused Santa to take them away. They were interrupted when Piiparinen tells Rauno to come and see the old man again, as the old man is strong enough to break a metal bar. When Pietari enters, the old man notices him, as the other man try to defend Pietari from being harmed.
They dress the old man in Piiparinen's Santa costume, and contact the Americans that they "had found Santa Claus". They take the old man in a cage to an airbase, where they meet Riley. Riley warns that the old man in a cage is not Santa Claus, but one of Santa's elves, and that they must not behave rudely. When one of them muttered a curse word, the other elves (who look like naked old men) destroy the electric lights, and kill Riley and his pilot. The men and Pietari run to Hangar 24, where they find a horned being in an enormous block of ice heated by several heaters. Underneath the block of ice are several sacks containing the crying missing children, including Juuso. They get attacked by the elves, who attempt to break into the hangar.
As Rauno, Piiparinen, and Aimo disconnect the heaters and use them to block the Elves from the doorway, Pietari devises a plan. Piiparinen comes out of the hangar, and distracts the elves by throwing gingerbread at them, so that he can reach the helicopter. The other two men make a net, which Pietari climbs on as it picks up the sacks of children to lure the elves to the reindeer pen. The other two men prepare dynamite all over Santa Claus' ice block, and cut off one of his horns, as they drive a truck out of the hangar and airbase. Pietari climbs down the net of children and an antenna to open the reindeer pen, as the horde of elves run toward him. Rauno and Aimo detonate the explosions, killing Santa Claus and causing the elves to stop at the reindeer pen before they will hurt Pietari.
After Rauno and Aimo take the children to their homes, Rauno decides to start a new business with the Subzero company, in which the captured elves are trained to become mall Santas and exported to various locations around the world.Onni Tommila as Pietari Kontio
Jorma Tommila as Rauno Kontio
Tommi Korpela as Aimo
Rauno Juvonen as Piiparinen
Per Christian Ellefsen as Riley
Ilmari Järvenpää as Juuso
Peeter Jakobi as Pietari's Elf
Jonathan Hutchings as Brian Greene
Risto Salmi as Sheriff
Jens Sivertsen as Main Elf
Sigmund Bøe as Main Elf
Olav Pedersen as Main Elf
Nils M. Iselvmo as Main Elf
The film was produced by Cinet (Finland) in co-production with Pomor Film (Norway), Davaj Film (Sweden) and Love Streams Agnès B. Productions (France), with support from the Finnish Film Foundation, Norwegian Film Institute, FilmCamp and Filmpool Nord.
In 2003, the Finnish commercials production company Woodpecker Film published the short movie Rare Exports Inc. online. (It is available on other YouTube channels as well.) Here, the film's writer and director Jalmari Helander established a band of three hunters (marker, sniper, and tracker) searching the wilderness of Lapland for the wild Santa Claus. After the positive reception from an online audience, Woodpecker Film produced and published the sequel short movie Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions in 2005, again with Helander as writer-director.
In 2007, Jalmari Helander introduced producer Petri Jokiranta to his idea of a feature length Rare Exports film based on his short films that had already acquired a cult reputation on the Internet. Jokiranta's company, Cinet, picked up the rights and Helander started to develop the concept together with Jokiranta.
In 2009, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale was in production and in Christmas 2010 it was released simultaneously in Finland, Norway, Germany, UK, US and Australia. The film was distributed in US by Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent film distribution company.
In US, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale earned $236,347, while abroad it fared much better at $3,778,786, with total worldwide sales at $4,015,133.
The film won numerous awards such as the Locarno International Film Festival's Variety Piazza Grande Award and Best Motion Picture, Best Cinematography, and Best Director – as well as a "Special Mention" for the Silver Méliès for Best European Motion Picture Award – at the 43rd Sitges Film Festival in 2010. In 2011, director Jalmari Helander and producer Petri Jokiranta received the Finnish Film State Award for their collaboration.
The film and crew earned further awards in 2011: nominated for Best Film for the Jussi Award, it won for Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Sound Design, Best Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. The film won the Pegasus Audience Award at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, and was nominated for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films's Saturn Award in the category of Best International Film.
The film received positive criticism. Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes reports that 89% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 87 reviews, with an average score of 7/10, making the film a "certified fresh" on the website's rating system. The film holds a score of 71 out of 100 on fellow aggregator Metacritic, based on reviews by 18 critics and 19 users, indicating "Generally Favorable Reviews".
Roger Ebert awarded the film three and a half out of four stars and called it "a rather brilliant lump of coal for your stocking" and considered it "an R-rated Santa Claus origin story crossed with The Thing." He continued, "Apart from the inescapable [fact] that the movie has Santa and reindeer in it, this is a superior horror film, a spot-on parody of movies about dead beings brought back to life. Oh, and all the reindeer are dead." Ebert concluded that "this is a fine film. An original, daring, carefully crafted film, that never for one instant winks at us that it's a parody. In its tone, acting, location work, music and inexorably mounting suspense, this is an exemplary horror film, apart from the detail that they're not usually subtitled A Christmas Tale and tell about terrifying wild Santas."
Novelist and critic Kim Newman gave the movie 4 out of 5 stars ("Excellent") and praised its "very black humour and a strange mix of revisionist mythology, gruesome horror and authentic Christmas spirit. It has a gritty, outdoorsy feel appropriate to an exploration of the brutal side of a harsh, all-male life in an extreme climate ... Helander also shows suspense chops in vintage John Carpenter mode – the scenes with the captured Santa, a grinning creature waiting for a chance to kill, are good, straight horror stuff, and there's an effective climactic siege of bearded monsters."
Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter describes the movie as "a fiendishly entertaining Christmas yarn rooted in Northern European legend and lore, complete with a not-so-jolly old St. Nick informed more by the Brothers Grimm than Norman Rockwell. While the richly atmospheric package has been wrapped with a healthy dose of wry satire, it's not of the mean-spirited Bad Santa variety. Helander, a successful commercial director in his native Helsinki, shrewdly blends just the right amounts of fairy tale wonder and action movie heroics into the oddball mix to highly satisfying effect."
Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times called the movie "a thing of frigid beauty and twisted playfulness ... Kids will love the diminutive, motherless hero and a plot that's completely bonkers; adults will enjoy the exuberantly pagan images and deadpan humor." It was rated a New York Times Critics' Pick.
Sheri Linden of the Los Angeles Times praised the "twisted black humor in this frosty Finnish fantasy ... What unfolds is a dark comic thriller and action-hero send-up, a strange alloy of daredevil helicopter maneuvers and night of the living elves. Captured in atmospheric widescreen camerawork, the end-of-the-world frozen landscape (actually Norway) is spectacular and spooky."
Reviewer Annika Pham, writing for Cineuropa.org, described it as a "Tim Burton-esque version of Santa's story" and said, "The icy Lappish landscapes are beautifully captured by [director of photography] Mika Orasmaa and the feel of the large-scale adventure epic is wrapped up in sweeping musical orchestration. The scary elements (suggested more than shown) are sufficient to keep 13+ viewers on edge, but could have been further elaborated – along with the original concept – to make Rare Exports a timeless seasonal delight."
Collider.com's reviewer Dave Trumbore called the film "a darkly humored tale that fits perfectly in line with such anti-Christmas classics as Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas" and wrote, "The contemporary Nordic setting that's so fitting for horror movies these days (Let the Right One In, Dead Snow) is a perfect backdrop for Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, not only in mood but in mythology as well ... While Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale does not have the level of gore of Dead Snow or the emotional impact of Let the Right One In (although Pietari does earn his father's respect in the end), it's a uniquely entertaining tale that adds a bit of welcome darkness to the often saccharine times leading up to Christmas."
Rare Exports was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on October 25, 2011. The Blu-ray version includes the two original short films and a variety of featurettes, such as a "Making Of", a look at the concept art, explanation of the animatics and computer-generated imagery, the notoriously contemptible feature film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and other extras.