DIR: Michael Dougherty • WRI: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields • PRO: Michael Dougherty, Alex Garcia, Pamela Harvey-White, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull • DOP: Jules O’Loughlin • ED: John Axelrad • DES: Jules Cook • MUS: Douglas Pipes • CAST: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechne
‘Tis the season; the season for Black Friday insanity and familial loathing where everyone bickers, no one wants to be there and the holiday that’s supposed to bring people together just keeps pushing them apart. Max (Anthony) can’t stand it anymore. He just wants to have Christmas like they used to; before his cousins became awful bullies, before he and his sister grew apart and before his mom (Toni Collette?!) and dad viewed Christmas as a social performance. In a fit of sadness and anger he turns his genuine Christmas belief into a bitter, hate-filled wish with consequences he could not have foreseen. Enter Krampus, the mythological Anti-Santa of old who for some reason has gained enough traction in American pop-culture to justify building a movie around him. Trapping the family in their home with a blizzard and no power, Krampus and his eclectic assortment of minions torment the family and pick them off one-by-one. Can they survive? Can he even be stopped? Will learning the true meaning of Christmas act as their salvation or is Krampus more of ‘you can act as a warning to others’ kind of guy?
First off, based on the trailers, the setup or even just the phrase ‘Christmas Horror Comedy’, it might surprise you to hear this is a lot better than expected. It’s still a bit of a mess that doesn’t entirely work but it actually has a couple of laughs and a handful of effectively scary ideas. Sadly it makes no sense, tonally. It’s neither funny enough nor scary enough to fully work as either a horror or comedy, while the satire only makes the briefest of appearances and never really reaches anything deeper than ‘isn’t Christmas the worst, lol, in-laws and consumerism’. If you look a bit deeper though and really buy into the meaning of the ending, there is a nicely melancholic seasonal message here and one which feels both more honest, emotionally and more biting, satirically, as an indictment of the whole institution of Christmas.
A lot of this comes from the grandmother character Omi (Stadler) who for the most part refuses to speak English but is full of mythological exposition, old-world wisdom and values, and even gets her own flashback sequence completely rendered in, excellently produced, Laika-style stop-motion for seemingly no good reason. Her repeated mantra that people have forgotten that the ‘giving’ aspect of Christmas was supposed to involve sacrifice is the oddly weighty emotional core to all of this, entirely reinforced by that final shot. For the most part the film seems to ridicule both sides of the ‘War on Christmas’ camp reasonably equally, even though the existence of Krampus seems to be tacit support in favour of keeping the ‘traditional’ Christmas iconography and rituals in place. But the final festive kick in the balls for both the audience and the protagonist (in a scene specifically designed to take a dump on the endings to all those other schmaltzy Christmas movies) is that Christmas is nothing to do with anything we currently associate it with. Even the ‘good’ ‘wholesome’ version of Christmas is just as much of a late-capitalist confection as anything else compared to the roots of the holiday.
Which, I hear you say, is all well and good but isn’t that exactly the same ground and message that the first Xmas episode of Futurama covered but with a more successful merging of bleakness and comedy and in a fraction of the running time? Well, yes. And therein lies the real problem, it’s not that the film is lacking good things; it’s just that it’s lacking enough of them. That final message gets no more screen time than it did in Futurama, Krampus himself is a new contender in the category of ‘Least Screen-Time for a Title Character’ and there is no reason for most of these actors to be here.
Let’s address that cast first. It’s a veritable and literal who’s-who of “oh yeah, that guy” and “what’s-her-face, you know, from that thing?” and then Toni Collette. One can only hope that she put the money that she must desperately have needed to agree to this, to good use. She’s utterly wasted in an entirely perfunctory role that could have been played by anyone, but the weirdest thing? She’s actually trying. This isn’t a phoned-in performance, she’s genuinely quite good; occasionally subtle and surprisingly affecting whenever the script tosses her a bone of an emotional moment. Yet it’s young Emjay Anthony as Max, nominally the protagonist, that deserves the most praise. In a role seemingly designed to be the insufferably naïve kid who you want to see devoured by monsters, he somehow succeeds in imbuing him with a real sympathetic likability which really manages to lend a little weight to some of the early scenes. (Is it just me or are ‘movie-kids’ getting better? Between this, The Visit and that one kid that keeps showing up in blockbusters, there seems to be less of them to hate.)
Then there’s Krampus. This one is a bit of a double-edged sword as not having him show up that much keeps him mysterious and creepy; as demonstrated in his delightful first appearance where he leaps and crashes across rooftops like some kind of deranged, jingle-bell-filled festive Batman. On the other hand, keeping him off-screen means we’re saddled with his ‘helpers’ which range from mask-wearing, cultist ‘elves’ to monstrous toys and (one winces at the phrase) comic-relief sentient gingerbread men that seem to have escaped a late-’90s kids film starring Robin Williams. Some of these do work; the evil teddy-bear is nicely demented-looking but the giant, man-eating Jack in the Box monster takes the cake for being one of the most visually-distressing creatures to see in motion of any film this year. Thoroughly unsettling and absolute nightmare fuel. It’s just a pity their boss does so little and is fairly unimpressive up-close once he finally decides to stick around for more than a few frames at a time.
Krampus isn’t getting out of here without a small recommendation, at least if twisted, bleak Christmas movies are your thing, but know that it’s far from problem-free. It’s a lot better than it could have even if it never quite reaches a Rare Exports level (which is probably still the high watermark for this kind of movie and, thinking on it, probably a more accurate exploration of the Krampus myth despite being about Santa). It certainly veers toward that film, especially with Omi who seems to have almost literally come out of Rare Exports’ world but it fails to build up and sustain its particular brand of off-kilter festive weirdness. It may not fully work as either a comedy or a horror but nor does it outright fail which really, is probably the most we could have hoped for from a Christmas Horror-Comedy starring Toni Collette that deals with a mythological, Germanic-Pagan Anti-Santa invading the US.
109 minutes (See IFCO for details)
Krampus is released 4th December 2015