WRITTEN REVIEW – Krampus (2015)
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Written by: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields
Starring: Emjay Anthony, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman & Krista Stadler
Music: Douglas Pipes
Release Date: December 4th 2015
Christmas-Horror-Comedy sounds like it should be an effective combination. Most horror comes from twisting and distorting facets of normal life and with such a cheery time of year like Christmas there’s a lot of material to work with. There are lots of ironic “classics” in the sub-genre such as ‘Jack Frost‘, ‘Satan Claus‘, ‘Santa’s Slay‘ etc. and there are lots of non-comedy horror Christmas classics such as ‘Black Christmas‘ but adding comedy to the mix has not been fruitful on the big-screen.
But if there’s one contemporary horror director who could make that combination work it’s Michael Dougherty who wrote and directed the 2007 cult classic horror anthology movie ‘Trick ‘r Treat‘. The subject of this horror movie is the German folklore creature; Krampus, who in contrast to Father Christmas punishes those who misbehave throughout the year. A very fitting subject for this material, but after a Halloween and Christmas movie who knows what Dougherty will do next? A Saint Patrick’s Day horror? Independence Day? Easter? The possibilities here are endless.
It’s a few more days until Christmas and the Engel family are trying to get into the festive mood. There’s father Tom (Scott), mother Sarah (Collette), daughter Beth and son Max (Anthony). But on December 22nd, they get visited by relatives who they have a quiet disdain for; Sarah’s sister Linda (Tolman), her husband Howard (Koechner), their children and Linda’s Aunt Dorothy. However, tensions arise between the families causing Max to tear up his letter to Santa which summons Krampus; “the shadow of Saint Nicholas”. Krampus and his henchmen start attacking the home and the family must band together to stave off the attacks before Christmas Day.
On the surface it’s essentially another “home-under-siege” horror movie but the devil is in the details and the holiday-aspects when it comes to ‘Krampus‘. It has one of the best and most amusing opening scenes of any movie this year by portraying what type of cynical world-view the filmmakers have towards the holidays and what they have become. Whether it’s the commercialisation of Christmas or people’s attitudes towards each other at what should be a wholesome time of year, ‘Krampus‘ makes its general disdain for human-kind very apparent in a very funny way within seconds of starting.
And as the movie progresses and this large family is introduced to the audience in memorable ways in order to quickly define their personalities and relationships, the movie seems to be setting up a cast of characters that are “okay” to kill or that the audience may gleam personal satisfaction from seeing get butchered by a bunch of evil, sentient gingerbread men. But that doesn’t end up being the case. Yes, there is a lot of conflict between the family that causes young Max to lose faith in the holidays and his family, but when the brown stuff hits the proverbial the family starts to band together and just who the audience should root for and who should bite it starts to shift.
Yes, we initially detest the relatives who come to visit but when the assault on the house starts to ramp up each of them get an awesome hero-moment or a meaningful interaction so we ultimately end up rooting for all of them. This means that when characters do ultimately start dying and the body-count starts ramping up it starts to mean something which gives ‘Krampus‘ a bitter-sweet feeling as well as genuine tension.
Not to mention that the very first casualty of the movie demonstrates that anyone of these characters can die and that no one is safe.
Speaking of which, Krampus’ introduction is awesome as we see him from a distance jumping on the roof-tops and Krampus’ henchmen have a real menace to them. Just like the best horror-comedy ever, ‘Shaun of the Dead‘, the reason the horror AND the comedy works is because the threat is real and genuine. People do die in ‘Krampus‘ and the humour stems from the family’s interaction with each other and the Holiday-Dressing as they’re attacked by Christmas-Themed monsters and objects that actually CAN hurt them and kill them. There are real life-or-death stakes here.
There’s a lot of imagination on display, such as a demonic Christmas Tree Angel, a jack-in-a-box (which might be one of the best practical effects of the year), the Gingerbread men and Krampus himself. But ‘Krampus‘ manages to not go too far off the deep end and become tonally askew as it’s a modestly sized movie. There are only a handful of locations and around 90% of the movie takes place inside the family home with the rest taking place just outside the house or on a nearby road. There’s great use of economy here when it comes to the story-telling giving the movie a claustrophobic feel without it feeling like a small, restrained production.
The performances are great across the board. Adam Scott gets a rare opportunity to play someone who ISN’T a total villain, Tony Collette is perfectly cast as someone who has to grit their teeth and smile in the company of her family, David Koechner is always good at balancing entertaining and annoying and Alison Tolman is oddly endearing. Krista Stadler plays Omi, the German Grandmother who has encountered Krampus before and she gets some of the best silent moments of the film and her performance is terrific. The child performances are also really strong with special mention going to Emjay Anthony who plays Max. He’s great throughout the film, but when the climax comes and Max has to show what he’s made of Emjay really lets loose in one of the best scenes of the year.
And then we come to the ending, which I won’t spoil but it will leave some people a bit disappointed. As for me, I thought it was perfect and it’s stuck with me ever since I saw it. It’s very bitter-sweet and really hits home the message and tone of the finished movie. Some people won’t like it, but I loved it.
The only things resembling issues with ‘Krampus‘ is that the movie probably could have trimmed a few minutes here and there. Also, the motivation of Krampus and just why he’s doing what he’s doing along with his minions are rather poorly defined and often contradictory. This could be the point since Krampus is more of a dick as opposed to someone with a proper objective, but since Krampus is a driving factor for the movie a bit more clarification would have been nice.
But if there’s one thing that’ll make horror-lovers gush over ‘Krampus‘ it’s the production. The practical effects are a sight to behold and make the movie look more than double its $15M budget. The Krampus suit in particular is a marvellous design; physically imposing, covered in metal chains with cloven hooves, giant horns, long nails and a skin-mask, this is a wonderfully designed creature and is almost entirely practical. Then there’s the jack-in-the-box which needs to be seen to be believed as well as Krampus’ helper-elves which look like they’ve come from a twisted cirque du soleil performance (or whatever the German equivalent is). The only predominantly CGI element would be the Gingerbread men, but to be fair it’d be tough to do it practically and still make it effective. Even the Snowmen that pop up outside the family house are creepy as hell.
The camerawork is sublime and jump-scares are at a minimum and when they are used they’re used effectively thanks to great build-up and pacing. The music by ‘Monster House‘ and ‘Trick ‘r Treat‘ composer, Douglas Pipes, is great and oddly festive despite the horror-trappings, the make-up is terrific, the gore doesn’t feel superfluous, the movie is dripping with Christmas iconography and the sound-design is top-notch. I know the Academy Awards don’t recognise horror films but if there’s any justice in the world, ‘Krampus‘ would get some sort of sound nomination.
And if the production values couldn’t get anymore admirable, there’s even an animated sequence which details Omi’s past encounter with ‘Krampus‘ that apes the stop-motion feel of old Rankin/Bass holiday specials. I could have watched an entire movie like that, but it’s just one expository scene which shows great creativity and ambition in the face of limited horror-resources.
‘Krampus‘ is ‘Halloween‘ mixed with ‘Gremlins‘ with a dash of ‘Small Soldiers‘ and Holiday spirit. If any of that sounded appealing to you or if there’s any aspect of the trailer or premise you liked then you’re gonna love ‘Krampus‘. Its characters are endearing, its themes are subversive, its scares are palpable, the humour is endearing and the production values are brilliant, particularly the use of practical suits and animatronics with minimal CGI. ‘Krampus‘, much like Michael Dougherty’s own ‘Trick ‘r Treat‘ is destined to become another cult classic and I look forward to whatever festive movie he makes next.
Thanksgiving could be fun holiday to make scary.
I give ‘Krampus‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 17th Dec 15