There is definitely a darker side to the legends surrounding Santa Claus. From the earliest tales of St. Nicholas, to the modern depiction, the generous spirit of the mythical figure has often been coupled with something a tad bit scary. In many countries, St. Nick is accompanied by Krampus, a devil-like creature who punishes the "bad" children. The punishments vary from region to region, but they include everything from leaving switches for parents to beat their children with, to dragging the youngsters to a cave to be eaten! Other countries, like France, have characters like Père Fouettard (big thanks to Guillaume for hipping me to this particular legend), who whips the naughty children. In most North American homes, Krampus and the like are unknown, but the image of Santa as a benevolent, jolly soul is still tempered with stories of him watching the children, only rewarding those who have been good. Those that make the "naughty" list are said to receive lumps of coal. While Santa Claus is generally viewed as a wonderful, kind figure by most children, the fact that he is always watching and judging them is still ever-present in their minds. He operates as both kindly gift-giver and bogeyman for the children who believe in him.
In most of the films I've spotlighted recently, the image of Santa has been used by a murderous madman to bring terror to the "naughty" people. It isn't too hard to see that the reason this works so well is that the subconcious idea of Kris Kringle punishing the evil-doers is ingrained in most of us. Santa is used to keep children in line, to keep them from disobeying parents and other authority figures. As we turn to adults, we tend to remember the happier aspects of Santa, and just chuckle a bit at the other stuff. To children, however, it's a deadly serious business. A part of us, that "inner-child", still remembers looking forward to Santa's visit...but being a tad bit afraid that we just hadn't been good enough in the preceding year.
This brings me to my final film that I will examine this Christmas season. The Finnish movie, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is incredibly unique and original. It's like watching a festive, Christmas version of The Thing! This is NOT a movie that I want to spoil for viewers in the slightest. Part of the enjoyment of this flick is seeing how the story unfolds. At its core, Rare Exports is more dark comedy and satire than it is horror film, but it still has a gruesome overtone. The story is simple: A scientific dig near the Lapland region of Finland uncovers a burial mound of some sort. Soon, reindeer in the area are found slaughtered in the hundreds, which leads the locals who live off of the beasts to set a trap for whatever is preying on them. What they capture appears to be...Santa Claus. Within the mythos of this film, the source of the Santa legend can actually be traced to an old Finnish folklore tale about an evil, demonic creature who preys on those who have not been on their best behaviour all year. Basically, this flick folds the Krampus and St. Nicholas legends into one character. Krampus is never mentioned by name, but there is little doubt that he is the inspiration for the images seen in a book the young protagonist finds that educates him (and the audience) to Santa's "true" nature.
While I wouldn't recommend this story for young children (or any of the one's I've listed, for that matter), this flick really isn't all that scary. There is some gore and a few creepy moments, but all-in-all the tone is darkly humorous. Onni Tommila, who plays Pietari(the young hero of the piece), is absolutely fantastic is this. In fact, the acting in this one is really top-notch all around. I totally bought the depiction of these characters as living in a remote village in the northern wilds of Finland. There is a no-nonsense attitude that is conveyed by men who have to face the realities of nature all the time. These are not jaded, cynical city folk. They are accepting of the nature of their plight, and take action immediately, no matter how absurd the idea of dealing with a creature from folklore might be.
In essence, this film works because it juxtaposes the darker aspect of the Santa myth from it's more popular depictions. Here, the "jolly" side of Santa is downplayed in favor of his role as punisher of those deserving of such. Rare Exports plays off of the folklore, adding in its own twists and turns. I've read a couple of reviews that have reviewed RE as an "anti-Christmas" movie, but I don't think that's the point. I think it is actually taking a jab at the commercialism and watering-down of the Christmas iconography. Ironically, the figure of St. Nicholas was historically one of kindness and generosity to the less-fortunate. In our modern society, Santa Claus has been co-opted by corporations to sell their wares. He is, in some instances, the embodiment of greed and gluttony in our society. I'm not trying to say that everyone who enjoys the character of Santa subsribes to this depiction, in fact I'd argue that most don't, but it is undeniable that the sweet, generous Father Christmas is often used as a symbol of crass commericalism. One need only turn on the television during the months leading up to Christmas to see dozens of adds in regular rotation that show Santa Claus endorsing various products. The final act of the film, which I will NOT spoil here, brings this point home in a rather brilliant way.
I heartily recommend Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale to those of you with a dark sense of humor. If you're sick of seeing Santa hocking automobiles or fast food, then pick this movie up! It's an absolutely wonderful, creepy and funny flick!
For more about Krampus: http://www.krampus.com/index.php
For info about Père Fouettard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_P%C3%A8re_Fouettard
(sorry. I've never been able to get those HTML links-within-a-text things to work!)