Curbstomping Cinema: Krampus
Basic Summary: A hopeless family gets some Christmas spirit beaten into them when their house is assaulted by the legions of Hell.
Genre: Horror / Comedy
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Written by: Michael Dougherty, Todd Casey, Zach Shields
Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Emjay Anthony
For the unaware, Krampus follows a dysfunctional family gathering the kind families are wont to do for the holidays: well-meaning couple Tom and Sarah, nutty in-laws Howard and Linda, and a few other relatives, with a throng of ill-behaved children between them. When the awkwardness and in-fighting fray his last nerve, Tom’s young son Max is robbed of the Christmas spirit and tears up his letter to Santa. Unfortunately, this draws the attention of the titular holiday hell-raiser, who descends upon the household with his army of demonic servants and gets ready to teach them the true meaning of Christmas…
I was hyped for this movie: Christmas horror films have been few and far between since the heyday of Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night, the demon Krampus is an inherently cool concept, and Michael Dougherty already has some cult horror cred for his anthology hit Trick ‘r Treat. All of the pieces were lined up to make this one a unique chiller with a thick smattering of good laughs.
So what happened?
Let’s start off with the story. Unlike its aforementioned Halloween-themed predecessor, Krampus tells its sordid tale in chronological order, only cutting away towards the middle for an admittedly fun and unique flashback (one of the film’s most creative points). Sadly, while it’s easier to follow, it’s also less willing to subvert expectations. From the minute the fan turns to “high” and shit hits it, we’re treated to Home Invasion Horror Flick 101. The formula is strictly adhered to, and anybody with a decent knowledge of tropes will see every story beat coming long before the family does. With that said, the early period after the weird happenings kick up is without a doubt the best the movie has to offer, as the Christmas Demon himself gets showcased in a knuckle-whitening rooftop chase scene and the various journeys out into the blizzard perform admirably as slow buildup.
It’s after the family begins to realize that they’re under siege that Krampus starts to fall apart. The pacing goes runny and scenes start blending together as the house is beset by wave after wave after wave of Krampus’s kooky minions (another serious flaw to be discussed). This all transpires with little in the way of real tension, with each sequence resting more heavily on the comedy aspect to the horror’s detriment. When the action starts moving again and the apparent climax is reached, we’re treated to a rushed and anticlimactic succession of major deaths, followed shortly by a dull confrontation resolved in a manner that left me restraining laughter (and not for the intended reasons). The ending then kicks in, and being an adherent to the basics of horror, it is of course a forced twist that’s ripe for fridge logic. And I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that there’s a pointless jump scare in the last two seconds despite all contextual logic, because horror movies seem legally obligated to have one these days.
So, the story isn’t great. What of the characters? The primary family is likable enough, if not particularly complex, with Tom and his aging, Austrian-speaking mother Omi standing out as the two most interesting people, though de facto main protagonist and inadvertent demon summoner Max can get a bit whiny. On the other side of the coin, all of the in-laws are cartoons; dickish caricatures of themselves with almost no redeeming qualities – though Howard at least gets some comedic mileage out of his clearly fetishistic obsession with big guns and big trucks.
None of them across the board, though, are deeply developed. The film is content to give them a major trait and a couple of secondary ones, and then to just let those wheels spin for 98 minutes. If this were a straight comedy, this would be acceptable, as it would also be in a straight horror film meant to dish up basic chills, but a setting and story like this thrives on making us care about the cast, which Krampus fails to do. I didn’t go in expecting The Gift levels of deep character introspection, but more than what was present would have been nice.
But on that note, this is a horror-comedy, and it’s time to talk about whether Krampus excels at either. The comedy is tough to write about, as it’s all subjective and the jokes fall across the spectrum of cleverness: sometimes it goes for the easy jokes, like the fat kid going for a conspicuous gingerbread cookie against all ingrained sense, and sometimes someone lets out a surprisingly offbeat remark or stumbles into an unexpectedly surreal scenario that wrung out a few chuckles from me. It wasn’t gut-busting by any means, but the same may not be said for you.
As for the horror…
Far too many pieces of entertainment nowadays, horror and non-horror, have gotten it into their heads that they need to adopt the Jaws method of not showing the monster/villain general threat for the majority of the proceedings. When done well, this works effectively, but too many filmmakers have apparently gotten “don’t show the Big Bad” confused with “don’t have the Big Bad do shit and only give them three scenes”. Infuriatingly, Krampus is a practitioner of this school of thought. The widely touted Anti-Claus shows up in the first and best scary scene, then completely disappears from the movie until near the end of the third act. Since we’re already treated to several clear and loving shots of his form during his introduction, it feels more pointless than tension building, and the legendary entity on a whole is wasted. Although, given the quality of the facial prop once exposed to light, perhaps it was for the best.
In his stead are a bevy of minions and mischief-makers to carry out the assault. These are the mooks coming down the chimney, busting down the windows, starting fires, running around in the shadows and generally delivering the fatal punishments we expected Krampus to hand out. The majority of these minions are pure comic relief, most egregiously an armed squadron of fucking CGI gingerbread men who look exactly like my memories of the Shrek movies, but whose battle scene is admittedly dumb fun at its purest. On the opposite end of the spectrum is jack-in-the-box monstrosity Der Klown, whose demented design and darkly playful antics do a fair share of the heavy lifting in the scare department.
Coulrophobia mascot aside, one can’t help but feel a bit cheated, right? This was meant to be Krampus’s time to shine, and he gets upstaged by the Misfit Toys. Outside of my own disappointment, the disjointed assemblage of threats hurt the sense of a focused threat for the family to fight against. Sure, Krampus is out there somewhere, but even the family can’t seem to remember that as their attentions turn again and again to the minions, which we’ve established by and large don’t serve the horror element well.
The rating also shoulders some of the blame, because being PG-13 undeniably drags both pivotal aspects of the film down. The comedy is mature, but it’s more Family Vacation than the expected black humor, and the F-bomb is censored to network television standards at every turn (there’s really a scene where someone says “give me back my kid, you fudger” and nobody points out the ridiculousness). The horror is conceptually disturbing, but it’s completely bloodless and refuses to innovate on itself. Neither excels, and that’s just a damn shame.
So what can it be unequivocally said that Krampus has going for it? Visuals and sound. The snowed-in house and the streets surrounding it generally keep up a spooky atmosphere, the latter especially being put to great use whenever people step outside (the awful finale notwithstanding). With the exception of the little gingerbread hellspawn, all of the effects are practical and lovingly put together; stiff and unimpressive face aside, Krampus is interpreted in a unique way that exudes scale and menace in his very limited screen time. As for sound, the ambient noise is used to decent effect, but the orchestral score is the real standout, even if it frequently clashes with the slower and subtler attempts at terror.
Overall, despite my numerous gripes, Krampus isn’t a terrible movie. If all you’re looking for is a collection of Gremlins homages with warped practical effects and some chuckle-worthy gags, you’ll absolutely love this. However, if you were hoping for a remotely original story, characters deeper than half-drained children’s pools, or a worthy extended showcase for a cool bit of holiday folklore, this might not be your joint.
Rating: Too Naughty For The Nice List and Vice Versa
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