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THEATRICAL REVIEW: Krampus

KrampusDirected by: Michael Dougherty
Produced by: Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Michael Dougherty, Thomas Tull
Written by: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Edited by: John Axelrad
Cinematography by: Jules O’Loughlin
Music by: Douglas Pipes
Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker, Gideon Emery
Year: 2015

 

Put this on my list of one of the more surprising films of 2015. I wasn’t even aware of the film’s existence until I saw the trailer play before M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit just a couple months ago. That film surprised me in not being as especially terrible as I had expected. However, while the prospect of a found footage horror film starring children and directed by M. Night Shyamalan sounded like the worst possible thing you would ever see, Krampus had a known cast of talented and even funny actors contrasting with the gruesome visuals and suggesting that this film had its pointed tongue was planted firmly in cheek. It actually looked like it had the potential to be an actually great movie. Could it possibly turn into a new alternative holiday classic?

Krampus - Adam Scott

There are similarities between this film and a lot of other subversive holiday classics, with the most obvious ones being Gremlins and Christmas Vacation, borrowing the former’s macabre tonality and mythical setups and the latter’s obnoxious relatives visiting for Christmas scenario. Here in Krampus, a young boy named Max is struggling to hold onto the Christmas spirit and his belief in Santa Claus, even though most kids his age have moved on from what they believe is a bunch of baby stuff. Max persists in his belief, however, thanks to the encouragement of his German grandmother, whom he calls Omi. She also claims to believe in the legend and tells him to hold onto hope, as well, but before Max can get any answers as to why she does, his unbearable aunt, uncle, and cousins arrive along with the abrasive Aunt Dorothy in tow, who has no issues blurting out the first offensive thought that comes to mind. When the pressure to be kind becomes too much, however, thanks to an especially cruel prank that’s played on him, Max gives up all hope in holiday magic, thus summoning the vengeful Krampus and his minions to teach the family what could very well be the last holiday season they’ll ever learn.

Krampus - Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, Allison Tolman, David Koechner, Conchata Ferrell

There’s a great deal to admire about Krampus beyond the audacity to turn the holiday cheer thing on its head, which has actually been done to death before, just maybe not in such a mainstream film. Krampus actually happens to look pretty fantastic, with a lot of the effects being done practically with puppets and actual sets, and the minimal amount of CGI that’s used is both justified and not too distracting. The creatures in this film, including the big guy himself, look absolutely phenomenal, and the setting at first looks very festive with its holiday aesthetics but later slowly introduces some intensely creepy elements that blend into and pervert the familiar Christmas visuals as the film progresses. There’s even a surprise interlude in the visual style for a segment of the film that I’m not going to spoil here but is a nice little touch that reinforces the creepy Christmas feel. Krampus is undoubtedly one of the more visually engaging films of the year, and way scarier than that pointless Poltergeist remake, too.

If production design was the sole reason to see Krampus, I would honestly have no issues recommending the film as is, just for that alone. Luckily, Krampus is also populated by flawed but enjoyable characters that range from likeable to hate-to-like (though the possibility of redemption is never denied anyone, either), and each of the actors is a welcome presence in the film, regardless of whether the role is more comedic or not. The comedic material, by the way, is mostly observational stuff that’s built into the characters’ personalities and their interactions with one another and the unusual situation going on, so they’re not exactly spouting off jokes one after another, and even the more comedic characters played by comedic actors are given moments of un-ironic contemplation.

Krampus - Emjay Anthony

That being said, the film does falter in the pacing department, as there is a noticeable lull about 3/4 of the way through that could’ve been padded with a bit more comedy through interaction between more of the characters that would’ve developed their relationships a bit further and maybe humanized the more outrageous ones. There’s a good amount of this between the two adult sisters whose relationship ties the two families together, but there are only hints of this between the two brother-in-laws, and the remainder of the characters could’ve been afforded similar treatments, particularly the relationship between Max and his cruel cousins – a relationship that ultimately pushed Max’s Christmas spirit to its breaking point and got them all into this mess in the first place. I ultimately cared about the characters as individuals more than I did any reconciliations that may have happened between the two sets of family members, and I don’t think that was intentional – and, if it was, then it shouldn’t have been. Luckily, the film does pick up the pacing at about the time this would’ve been welcome, so you don’t have too much time to think about it while in the moment. It’s still kind of a shame.

Krampus - Jack-in-the-box

Regardless, though, I was incredibly happy to be surprised by the level of care that was put into making Krampus happen, enough so that I was still surprised by it even when I was already looking forward to the film in the first place. The premise of an evil counterpart to Santa Claus coming to town to terrorize a family that’s made the naughty list due to their lack of hope and holiday cheer sounds like the makings of a campy so-bad-it’s-good cult classic, but director Michael Dougherty (of Trick ‘r Treat fame) and his crew manage to pull off making this about as straight a film as you can make about the subject while still acknowledging the absurdity inherent in the ridiculous premise without turning it into an outright comedy or farce. Like with Gremlins and Rare Exports before it, Krampus is a very entertaining bit of holiday-themed nightmare fuel that should prove to be a welcome antidote to the usual shot of artificial saccharine holiday sweetness we’re too often subjected to this time of year.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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