If it’s hard to consider why its difficult to break new holiday film classics, the reason is on display upfront at the beginning of Krampus – as a disastrous Christmas pageant is captured on the cell phones of several adults who do nothing, while acts of violence that make the Battle of Fallujah look like a slap fight break out at a big box store. It’s a Wonderful Life this ain’t. While most Christmas movies are about the fundamental decency of the season breaking through the clutter, Krampus boldly says that seasons greetings don’t happen by accident, you have to repent!
It’s hard to say though that Krampus is a message movie: love your family or lose them to a cloven-hooved monster and his minions. Aside from being too literal, a message would get in the way of the masochistic fun that director and co-writer Michael Dougherty is trying to have. Perhaps if there was some tradition of Christmas-themed horror movies to rely on, aside from Gremlins, Black Christmas, and Silent Night Deadly Night, Dougherty might have had some direction. That’s why when Krampus works best it feels akin to Gremlins, and when it doesn’t it just feels like another one of those holiday movies about a horrible family that realizes they’re perfect under their horribleness.
On the bright side, Dougherty was given some room, a studio budget, and a major release to explore the possibility. In 2007, Warner Bros. unceremoniously dumped his last movie, an anthology tribute to all things Halloween called Trick ‘R Treat, onto home video. I saw it at Toronto After Dark, likely one of the few screenings in a movie theater the film experienced, and thoroughly enjoyed the film’s mix of humor, horror and homage. Dougherty clearly thought that lightning could strike again by fast-forwarding his ideas two month, which wasn’t a bad idea, and Dougherty is deft enough to know in the heat of the horror, focusing on working the concept can cover a multitude of sins.
First of all Krampus isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. You have two sets of parents, six kids, a grandmother and an irascible aunt, and they’re all fair game. Yes, the kids die horrible deaths too. It’s refreshing for a PG-13 film, and a horror film at that, to say that danger is danger, and no one, not the kids, not the kindly old grandmother, and certainly not the dog, are safe.
It takes a while for Krampus to crank things up and get your blood going, but when it does, the movie shines. The various creatures that work with Krampus, a dark reflection of St. Nicholas from Eastern European folklore who takes what Santa gives, not to mention Krampus himself, are well realized and imaginative creations. At least the practically created ones are. There are sinister CG gingerbread men that are definitely more silly than scary. Try as you might, but you can’t make cookie people sinister, even if they seem like baked good versions of the scaly monsters from Gremlins.
The signature scene involves a giant jack-in-the-box with mandibles of sharp teeth, like Jaws meets the Joker. Tom (Adam Scott), his wife Sarah (Toni Collette) and her sister Linda (Allison Tolman) are trying to save the kids trapped in the attic when they’re attacked by demonic toys. As they struggle with guns, and knives and axes, a gothic version of “Carol of the Bells” plays as the soundtrack turns a Christmas classic into a horror theme. Meanwhile, Linda’s husband Howard (David Koechner) is in the kitchen fighting gingerbread men armed with a nail gun. It’s preposterous, but Koechner is one of those actors that can use humor to make the ludicrous seem natural.
The plot is simple. Young Max (Emjay Anthony) becomes upset when his cousins mock his remaining faith in Santa Claus. Combined with the animosity between his two families, Tom and Sarah being the embodiment of Yuppie America while Howard and Linda come across as brain dead hicks, and Max feels that Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore. Then, like a magic wish gone wrong, a terrible blizzard rolls though town, knocking out power, and making the family sitting ducks for Krampus and Co.
The longest part is waiting for the carnage to begin. That’s often a complaint in horror movies, but the experience was especially problematic in Krampus as it played to the worst in holiday movie stereotypes: the well-meaning, upper middle class family that tries to make everything perfect while making themselves miserable meets the in-laws who are Hummer-drivin’, deer huntin’, uncouth loudmouths that constantly have to remind people of their presence. Seen Christmas Vacation? Been there, done that. Where as Dougherty used the tropes to his advantage in Trick ‘R Treat – the angry old man next door, the nice guy neighbor, the lone damsel – he also subverted them.
When we start to realize that this is no ordinary storm, things tick up slightly, but the first reveal of Krampus is doesn’t quite have the effect it should. There was some concern then that Dougherty might have blown this concept that has long been crying out for a movie of its own, lost in a wash of age old horror movie tricks and bad Christmas movie cliches. The questions started taking me out of the movie. Why is grandma speaking German and everyone’s speaking English back? Are we seriously supposed to believe this winter scene that was so obviously shot on a soundstage is a real blizzard? (I’m from Canada, you see. We can tell.)
After sitting through all that, the family comes to realize what they’re up against and the siege begins, and that’s when Krampus really takes off. You come to realize the charm of the production design, you revel in the artistry of the various creatures, and Dougherty starts to have fun with the ideas that made this so appealing in the first place. Grandma’s flashback to her first encounter with Krampus in her youth plays like the Hammer Studios version of a Rankin/Bass Christmas special, and there’s a growing sense of unsettledness that no one’s going to leave Krampus’ clutches alive.
A colleague of mine called Krampus a mix of The Mist and A Christmas Carol, which in the end is rather the perfect way to describe this movie. I was afraid it would wuss out in the end, but was pleasantly surprised when both Dougherty and the studio let it all play out to its natural conclusion. Even though the first half of the film feels like an anchor on the second half, those last 45 minutes are a rush of blood to the head, a kick in the complacency of the season. If the whole film had been like that, Krampus would already be a classic, instead we’ll have to see if Krampus becomes a cherished holiday memento, or is disposable like store bought fruit cake.