What I'm Watching: Krampus
Longtime readers have probably noticed that I love what I refer to as "Just Wrong Christmas Movies". Die Hard is a great example of this. They're less about the Christmas, and just set at that time period. P2, The Ref...I could go on. There's also the type that ARE about Christmas, but have themes that just aren't compatible with the holiday, or maybe are, but the movie ends up pretty bloody...
Oh look! Krampus! A Christmas horror movie! That fits the bill *perfectly*! I'm also a huge fan of Krampus, have been for a good long time now, and the guy has seen this weird resurgence in popularity lately, and it is wonderful. He's been on American Dad, he's had a comic, and now a movie...and that's just scratching the surface.
This was a must see movie for me, arguably more so than a certain other movie tearing up the box office, but more on THAT later. Today is all about Krampus.
For those who don't know, Krampus is a Germanic bit of folklore that rides along side the Christmas stuff, and is kind of the personification of the 'evil' side of things. You know how Santa knows if you're naughty or nice? Well, Krampus deals with the naughty kids. He's a bit of a Christmas boogeyman, and I see a lot of sense to having a separate entity to deal with the more gruesome aspects of the folklore.
ANYways, the eponymous movie kicks off with a family celebrating Christmas, and you can tell relationships are strained even amongst the main family unit. But things get even worse when the wife's sister, her husband, their kids, and worse, her horrible aunt who raised her, shows up for the holidays. You can tell these people don't get along, but it's the holidays, so they try and tolerate each other for a few days. This is something we can all relate to, I think.
This all gets to young Max, who gets tormented by his cousins, and he eventually tears up his Christmas letter to Santa, and tosses it out the window. Unbeknownst to him, this calls down the force of Krampus into his town, and the family wakes up the next day with a blizzard having sealed off the neighbourhood, and people going missing. Or did they just go away to their families for the holidays?
Krampus eventually finds his way to their home, and things kick into high horror gear. It's a little bit of Demonic Toys meets Home Alone once it really gets going, because Krampus tosses around lots of toys that come to life and do evil things, forcing the Engel family to try and survive the horror in their own house, while they're being picked off one by one.
I absolutely love this movie. It is so much fun, and has a lot to say about families and holidays...and then it turns into a festive bloodbath. It's great, and has a great sense of humour about itself.
One of the things that turned me off though was the first act. It's a long, long 30 minutes of getting to meet the entire family, before anything really happens, and you start getting uncomfortable in your chair. Now, to be fair, that's by design, and very deliberate, I am absolutely certain of this. A large part of that uncomfortableness is watching Max and his sister and parents going through hell with the in-laws. They're good people, but during that first act, their personalities clash SO MUCH with the Engels, and it pushes so many buttons of things much of the audience can relate to, that it becomes very hard to watch at times. I wanted to leap through the screen and throttle some of them long before Krampus even jingled his bells.
So a lot of my issues with the first act are meant to be there, but even so, it could've used a little bit more Krampus to break things up, or give us a breather from the horrid in-laws.
One of the single best sequences is, of all things, the opening credits. It's your typical scene at a mall during Christmas time, with parents doing their shopping, and kids seeing Santa, etc, but as things often seem to do these days, they turn violent at a sale, with parents trampling, and kids arguing. It says SO SO much about a lot of what is *really* wrong with the holidays these days, without saying many actual words. It's a great bit of satire, and I think the movie needed a bit more than that.
Fortunately, once the family wakes up and things are going clearly weird, and Krampus starts showing up, the tone shifts, and the movie really gets going.
The movie is co-written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who also did Trick 'r Treat, another movie I loved about the holidays, and it was great seeing him splatter the screens again for Christmas. He's got a good eye, crafts some good set pieces, and knows how to build up tension and horror. There are moments that come right out of Sam Raimi's playbook, notching up the tension bit by tiny bit until the audience is ready to fall off the edge of their seats, and making us wait nearly the entire first act before anything even remotely horror is frustratingly brilliant. That first thirty minutes is almost straight out of the classic tropes of every holiday movie ever, and instead of the usual lessons of the season from every cheesy Christmas movie, the Engels and friends instead learn the lessons of Krampus.
I love every piece of design in this movie. The instant Max and family peek outside and see the blizzard has swept through, you can tell things are Not Right. I sense some people will complain about how fake, and smooth, and plastic the snow looked outside, but I *loved* that detail. It made it feel like they suddenly stuck inside a snowglobe, with the scenery looking *very* fake, and TOO perfect, increasing that feeling of isolation, even with homes right across the street. It looked fake sure, but it looked *good* for the tone they were striking, and just made you know this was not a normal event.
The monsters were equally greatly designed, mostly by WETA, I believe. There was a wonderful level of whimsy to them, making them seem cute and fun for those brief moments before they too revealed themselves to be very wrong, and the killing began. They were cute but threatening at the same time. And felt like genuine threats once they revealed themselves, even though they were tiny toys, or cookies, attacking the family. The movie didn't shy away from the absurdity of the situation, and embraced the humour inherent in it, without undermining things TOO much.
The design of Krampus was...a *bit* off. He almost had a feeling like some Guillermo del Toro monsters, that become a bit too whimsical or unreal, and he didn't quite land for me, although he still has some truly creepy and threatening moments. He truly did look like an evil, twisted Santa Claus by way of Lucifer when he worked. You could see him and go, "Santa! Yay!" for a moment before you got a closer look and realised that he too was not quite right and things were off.
The ending of the movie came SO SO close to pissing me off, and I won't spoil it *too* much, but I need to at least try and talk around it. They started going for a happy ending, and on the one hand it made me want to fling things out the window, but on the other hand, I was actually ready to go along with it, because if any horror movie can go for that kind of happy ending, it's a movie fueled with Christmas magic, right? But oh, then they continued to twist the ending even more, and it went right back to the darkness where it belongs, and I was so grateful. I'm still pondering where I land on whether or not I like the ending, but it was nicely dark, and that's always a plus with horror.
Overall, Krampus is very enjoyable, once things get going, and that first act really does a lot of establishing the characters in all their goodness and all their flaws, so you do genuinely care about them once Krampus arrives. It is a *bit* of a mixed bag, but there is plenty of fun and horror to be had, so this is absolutely worth seeing for the horror fans looking for something a little less schmaltzy at Christmastime. It might not be a perfect movie, but it is easily one of the better Christmas horror movies out there.