Monday, December 26, 2016

Krampus (2015)

Unless it's a retelling of A Christmas Carol, modern holiday films tend to follow a pretty standard pattern.  The hero has their Christmas spirit put to the test by relatives or a greedy Scrooge-like character.  Just as their feelings of holiday joy are crushed, something happens to renews their faith and the film ends with a rousing carol.  And Krampus follows this template for the most part, adding demonic toys, homicidal cookies and firearms to the mix.  In short, a perfect Horror-days movie.

If you doubt this is a holiday horror film,
let me introduce the film's giant jack-in-the-box.

The film opens on a scene of seasonal chaos, as shoppers invade a store like fast moving zombies.  People are knocked over and trampled, security personnel gleefully tase the most unruly of the bunch, and everyone lines up at the registers with a look of buyers remorse at the thought of next month's credit card bill.

In all the surrounding holiday mayhem, Max (Emjay Anthony) is trying to hold onto his Christmas spirit.  And though he no longer believes in Santa, he's composed a letter to the jolly old elf.  But his faith is crumbling, and it just takes one holiday dinner with his relatives to break him.  Max tears up the letter and throws it out his bedroom window.

Well, that wasn't the smartest thing to do, as a blizzard rolls in, knocking out power and isolating the family.  They soon discover the neighbors have vanished and something is stalking them.  As his family is attacked by monstrous holiday manifestations, Max realizes he is being punished by the demon Krampus for losing his Christmas spirit.  As his family is carried into the blizzard by Krampus' minions, Max sets out to face the demon and save his family.

That does not sound like eight tiny reindeer.

Yes, the Krampus legend is changed, but it works for the film.  Had the Christmas demon stayed true to his roots, and Max's family been deserving of punishment, the story would be little more than a holiday version of Friday the 13th.  Instead, by making Max the cause of the attack, the audience sympathizes with his family members and becomes concerned for their safety.  It also sets up the idea that Max might be able to rekindle his holiday spirit and end the demon's reign of terror.

While Krampus is considered a horror comedy, it's more intense than one might expect.  Writer/director Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r Treat) seems intent on scaring the audience once the mayhem starts.  Though the film does have some humorous moments in the first act, especially during the steroidal shopping spree, once people start vanishing, the humor tends to disappear as well.

And unlike other holiday monsters like the creatures in Gremlins, the monsters in Krampus are not funny.  Sure, the CGI gingerbread men might evoke a few laughs, the practical effects crew created some pretty frightening monsters.  And the cast does a terrific job of conveying the terror of watching loved ones being dragged away by the creatures.

You ate my best friend, you bastard!

As for the titular creature, Krampus looks terrifying.  The creature isn't a stuntman in body makeup and horns, but an otherworldly presence befitting a demon described as the shadow of St. Nicholas.  Aside from a few CGI shots early in the film, Dougherty slowly revels the demon, framing his shots to keep its full appearance a mystery till the end of the film.  This approach also hides any limitations inherent in the puppet.  By showing less early on, Krampus ends up being scarier than you might expect.

All I want for Christmas is.....

The cast is wonderful.  Anthony and the other child actors are quite good.  Adam Scott and Toni Collette (Max's parents) are convincing as they struggle to mend their stagnant relationship.  And Allison Tolman and David Koechner keep the Hummer-driving, gun-toting relatives from becoming mere stereotypes.  It's a pleasant change of pace from the standard portrayal of such family members, making the audience care for them and fear for their safety.

The script is fine, but the finale feels weak.  Dougherty attempted to have an ending that fit the dark tone of the script without being dire enough to upset a mainstream audience.  Though the resulting conclusion might have been a wise move for the commercial viability of the film, it's not a satisfying finish, as it leaves the fate of the family somewhat unresolved.  

Given a theatrical release in early December of 2015, Krampus performed above expectations, earning back it's budget on its opening weekend.  And it was second at the box office, behind the finale of The Hunger Games.  Yet for some reason, its success didn't prod another studio to release a holiday horror films to theaters this year. Perhaps we might find something slotted between the blockbusters flooding the multiplexes in 2017.

Krampus is a fun, scary horror-day film fans will want to add to their seasonal movie collection.  It might not knock any of the classics from the top of your list, but it's a great way to spend a cold winter evening with your family.

Ah, Krampus brings the cutest toys!

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