Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s film—a prequel of sorts to two shorts—begins with a U.S. excavation team digging deep into an Arctic Finnish mountain, where something frozen in ice has been deliberately buried. Local boy Pietari (Onni Tommila), whose dad Rauno (Jorma Tommila) operates a reindeer slaughterhouse, believes the buried treasure coveted by these American intruders is Santa Claus—not the “Coca Cola” version, but the evil one of ancient lore who punished naughty children by boiling them in bubbling cauldrons and tanning their hides down to the bone. Subsequent reindeer massacres and the sudden deaths of the excavators only heightens Pietari’s suspicions, though naturally, no one buys his fantastic story. Or at least they don’t until a scrawny bearded man is caught in one of Rauno’s wolf traps. Despite seeming to have died from his injuries, this gaunt figure is animated by the scent of gingerbread cookies and, more potently still, Pietari, who soon realizes that he’s the only kid in the area not to have been snatched up on Christmas Day and replaced in bed with an ominous wooden doll.
Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters.
Even at 80 minutes, Real Exports is a tad thin. Yet as in a dinner scene that finds Pietari indirectly asking for a sign of his father’s love, and Rauno’s eyes welling with tears as he fails to open up to the boy, Helander proves adept at painting in sharp, clean strokes, and throughout, his film preserves its core humanism in large part thanks to a script that refuses to reduce its players to caricatured objects of ridicule.
A late-act shot of an airborne Pietari swinging toward the camera, fist raised in whooping triumph, is the clearest, if not the only, acknowledgement by Helander that holiday fantasies such as this are at least mildly corny. Still, though the story’s goofier dynamics (such as with Rauno and his cartoonish mates) occasionally border on awkward self-parody, Rare Exports empathetically depicts Pietari’s maturation as a process that involves a simultaneous embrace and rejection of childhood, the former epitomized by his staunch belief in Santa, and the latter symbolized by his eventually casting aside of a stuffed plaything.
Moreover, the film by and large assumes a straight face as it wends its way toward the revelation that Santa is not only a malevolent beast, but one protected by a herd of emaciated, white-bearded, totally nude elves who are comfortable wielding shovels and pick axes while completing their kid-snatching missions. Even as the action arrives at an emotional reunion between Pietari and Rauno that veers a bit too far into squishiness, Santa’s unclothed minions, hollow-eyed and smeared with blood, help the film maintain its measure of unease and, in doing so, to also function as a playful ode to the underlying creepiness of jolly Christmas cheer.