Everyone knows the story of Santa Claus: a kindly old gent in a plush red suit and a long white beard goes around rewarding nice children with toys for their good behavior. Fewer still know that the legend is, in part, based on a rather darker story. In this one, Santa is a demon who captures and punishes wicked children for their misdeeds. Rare Exports is a tale about this Santa Claus.
Pietari (Onni Tommila) is a young boy living with his father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) in a remote reindeer hunting village in the far north of Finland, along the border with Russia. Just on the other side rises Korvatunturi. Over the last month or so an American drilling team has been excavating something from the top of the mountain. In fact, in early December Pietari and his friend Aimo (Tommi Korpela) snuck up and spied on them as they instituted an unusual new set of safety regulations: no drinking, no smoking, no swearing, and so on. But there’s been no sign of the drillers for a few days.
December 23 brings the reindeer roundup, where the wild herd will be corralled and slaughtered; the village will survive by exporting the meat. But this year, no reindeer come. The villagers find over a hundred corpses near the border fence, and conclude that Russian wolves have snuck through a hole in the fence and killed them off. Of course, Aimo insists that Pietari lie and conceal that they were the ones who cut the hole so they could sneak up the mountain.
The next day, Pietari’s father finds the body of an old man (Peeter Jakobi) at the bottom of a spike pit he’d dug to capture marauding wolves. At first he thinks it’s one of the drillers, but they come to find it’s something far more sinister indeed — something the drilling team’s bosses want, and might pay dearly for.
Writer and director Jalmari Helander has to be commended for his wildly imaginative work. It’s one thing to write a Krampus or an evil-Santa story — it’s become something of a standard in subcultures marked by an irreverent sense of humor. But it’s something else entirely to come up with one like this. And to render it with such an eye for the fantastic puts it on another level entirely.
Of course, the entire premise is preposterous on its face; Rare Exports asks a lot for an audience to take it as a horror movie, but it more than deserves it. The entire movie is played archly — like Flash Gordon or Buckaroo Banzai — and never consciously breaks that steady, serious demeanor. Onni Tommila does a great job as the child who realizes the truth of the fairy tales before all the adults do, and Jakobi is stunningly creepy as the silent, gnarled old man whose eyes look into yours, making it clear that he knows.
Worth it: yes, but it would have been nice if they’d opened it a month ago so it could be seen in theaters and during the Christmas season.
Bechdel test: fail