Sunday, January 10, 2016

Holiday Horror: Krampus

Max hates his extended family and they come over every Christmas for dinner. His cousins always humiliate him; his uncle always hates the food Max's mother makes; and the two families have nothing except their blood relation in common. The only person he really likes of them is his Omi, his father's Austrian mother. Once his heartfelt letter to Santa to fix his family is read out loud by his awful cousins and ridiculed, he angrily tears it up and throws it out the window. Then a mysterious red sac full of gifts arrives at their door and a storm unexpectedly comes in so severe that the power goes out. The families are effectively trapped inside with no light and freezing temperatures. Then a sinister force set on punishing them slowly reveals itself, challenging the family to work together or die.

Krampus is the second film by Michael Dougherty who also directed my favorite Halloween film Trick 'r Treat. This film is a great addition to the holiday horror genre, but doesn't live up to its predecessor. The exposition of the film is a bit lengthy, but it's important to establish the characters, their relationships, and really get us to care about what happens to them. Without this, the film would be lackluster. I love the beginning and its cynical yet accurate view of the holiday season. Bing Cosby croons It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas while people brawl it out over Christmas decorations and present. Max also fights with another students onstage at the Christmas play while his classmates teachers and parents look on, horrified. It captures the Christmas feeling to so many: retail rage and spending time with family you hate. It's clear from the beginning that Max's family doesn't see eye to eye on practically anything; they are opposing on everything from political ideology to how to raise their kids to how they liked the food. Their fights just escalate, undeterred by Christmas or the supposed togetherness of the holiday. After they are attacked by supernatural creatures, they grow closer together and are forced to work together for the greater good. At this point, I like the family enough, but they are all kind of awful. I wouldn't mind if they were dragged off by supernatural creatures and killed. Oma, Max's Austrian grandmother, is the best and most sympathetic character in the film and the only one I would have any sort of emotion if they died. However, I did like seeing a realistic dysfunctional family onscreen and exploring their relationships.

My favorite part of the film is Krampus and his variety of monstrous helpers. Krampus himself towers over everyone with huge horns, hooves, long skeletal fingers, and an eerie human face. He wears a huge cloak to obscure his face most of the time, which is no less imposing or frightening than his visage. His helpers include adorably homicidal gingerbread cookies, horrific toys a la Nightmare Before Christmas, unseen sandworms under the snow, evil snowmen, evil Jack-in-the-Boxes, and other masked creatures. The clown Jack-in-the-Box in particular is the stuff of nightmare fuel as it seeks to devour its prey whole. There is no shortage of creative monsters here. Their design pushes the envelope of what is acceptable in a PG-13 horror film because of how truly creepy and disturbing they are. I love Krampus story: how he is the shadow of Santa Clause and comes in to punish a whole village that has lost the Christmas spirit, leaving one lone child survivor to tell the tale to others. The part explaining this story through Oma's memories changes medium and adopts a monochromatic, stop motion style. The change is beautiful with a dash of Edward Gorey and builds the Krampus mythos nicely.

Krampus is a gleefully sinister Christmas movie that I would watch every year along with Gremlins. The only flaw in the film is that Dougherty clearly pulled back what we would usually do to the characters (as seen in Trick 'r Treat) in order to gain a wider audience and a PG-13 rating. It feels a bit watered down, but makes sense with the ending. That said, I hope it opens up more doors for him and helps pave the way for a sequel to Krampus and Trick 'r Treat.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

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