There's something very diabolical about an ancient man who watches children at all times, passing judgment on their behavior before breaking into their homes in the middle of the night.

Finnish director Jalmari Helander knows there's an inherent malice in the Santa Claus myth. He mines it to full effect with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a fantastical horror comedy in which the Fat Man is a sadistic enforcer of morals. Santa—"not the Coca-Cola Santa," as one character puts it—is actually a demonic marauder (Per Christian Elletsen) who snatches naughty kids from their beds, replacing them with wicker dolls before chucking them into burlap sacks and carting them off.

The film centers on shotgun-toting tyke Pietari (Onni Tommila), who becomes fascinated when an American excavating company starts digging in a mountain near his family's rustic reindeer farm. He soon discovers the mountain is actually the tomb of Father Christmas himself. Crew members are advised to watch their language and refrain from smoking and drinking during the project, and soon after they start digging, Pietari's father captures a deranged, naked, bearded man near a pen of slain reindeer. Sensing money to be made, he and his friends hold the assumed Santa for ransom. This, of course, is very naughty, and Santa's punishment soon goes well beyond leaving coal in stockings.

No fair to disclose more. Half of the joy of Rare Exports—based on a series of shorts—is derived from allowing the story, and its ample surprises, to unfold with its skilled mix of magic and mischief. Though the setup sounds gleefully macabre, Helander allows the tale to glow with a sense of childlike wonder, forgoing gore and scares for a giddy story of a curious kid who must conquer his fears to save the day.

There is no shortage of irreverent holiday films, but not since Gremlins has a Christmas flick so aptly combined dark overtones with such imagination and abandon. Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Rare Exports is packed with a sense of childlike discovery, nailing the laughs and dread with an overriding sense of innocent curiosity. The result is poised to be an instant cult classic for those who have grown tired of George Bailey and his feel-good brethren. Naughtiness can be its own reward. R.


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

opens Friday at Fox Tower.