Premise-of-the-week honors go to “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” a warped comic fable that dips into icy Nordic folklore and serves up a sinister, scrawny Santa Claus who eats naughty kids.
Just 80 minutes long and limited in dramatic thrust, it’s a slight and patchy film. But its high points are significantly wicked, entertaining and underlyingly human to enable it to qualify as a holiday-catalog mini-gem.
Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, this Finnish tale brings to mind a Steven Spielberg-style child-hero adventure combined with one of those sci-fi creepers in which something monstrous is pulled from the deep. The tone is Scandinavian droll, and Helander’s genre cocktail blends horror, Yule lore, action heroism, father-son dynamics and auteurish fancy.
Near the frozen Finnish-Russian border, a corporate mining project on a large mountain has attracted two snooping village boys: young Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his naughtier friend, Juuso (Ilmari Jarvenpaa).
The perceptive Pietari concludes that Santa Claus has been excavated from the ice, and mythology books reveal that this Santa isn’t the ho-ho-ho guy. He’s a horned bogeyman who does horrible things to children.
Eerie developments indeed occur. Kids disappear and scary-looking wooden dolls replace them in their bed. The reindeer herd — the main source of income for hunters like Pietari’s father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila) — is mysteriously slaughtered.
Believing wolves to be responsible, Rauno sets a trap, which captures the evil Santa. A brigade of naked elderly elves, coming to the rescue of their boss, arrives. Locals hatch a scheme to profit from it all.
Helander has previously made short films, and this debut feature often feels like a central idea stretched long and thin. The plot points and whimsies don’t all deliver.
At the same time, however, Helander takes chances, and frequently achieves something truly inspired.
The early scenes involving the Santa dig site are impressively original. The action sequence in which Pietari, derided as wimpy, proves his mettle scores big. A kitchen scene in which the hardened Rauno bakes gingerbread for his motherless son contains surprising poignancy. Both lead actors — real-life father and son — are convincing.
Helander additionally triumphs by addressing the commercialization of Christmas and by exploring how folklore reflects deep-set human fears as well as the overall psyche of its land of origin.
In short, there’s lots to savor in this dramatically uneven but bracingly novel holiday comedy that adults, in particular, can enjoy.
Starring Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa
Written and directed by Jalmari Helander
Running time 1 hour 20 minutes