In the wilds of northern Finland sits a small mountain, in the middle of a community of reindeer-ranchers. According to the research of young Onni Tommila, the mountain is actually a burial mound, erected centuries ago by villagers who froze and trapped Santa Claus. This would be the real Santa Claus, not “the Coca-Cola Santa.” This is the Santa who beats and tortures naughty children—and to this Santa, every child is at least a little bit naughty.
In his debut feature, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, writer-director Jalmari Helander repeats some ideas from his popular shorts “Rare Exports Inc.” and “Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions.” Here, he imagines a scenario where a corporate fat cat from Subzero Inc. finances an operation to find and excavate Santa. Around the same time, an old man with a long white beard shows up in a wolf-trap set by Onni’s father, Jorma Tommila. The dad wants to hold the coot hostage and get Subzero to pay back the money he lost when wild beasts slaughtered his reindeer herd. But the son is worried, because local children have begun disappearing, and he suspects Santa’s elves are responsible.
Rare Exports takes a little too long to get cranked up—especially given that it’s less than 80 minutes long—and Helander doesn’t hit his horror, action, or comedy beats as hard as he could’ve. But he’s a fiendishly clever image-maker, and Rare Exports is full of wonderfully twisted visions, from the creepy life-sized dolls Santa’s helpers leave behind when they snatch a kid to the giant warehouse door that resembles an advent calendar, right down to the big “24.” And it’s hard not to like a movie in which a little kid who’s so skittish that he totes around a protective stuffed animal suddenly stares down the grown-ups, cocks a gun, and snarls, “It’s either me or Santa. I suggest Santa.” Rare Exports is slight but fun: a potential new holiday classic for moviegoers who always suspected that any old dude who sneaks into houses can’t really be as jolly as his reputation.