The film is totally fearless with regard to the characters and their fates
Movies reviewLike he had for thousands of years, Krampus came not to reward, but to punish. Not to give, but to take
Krampus, an Austro-Bavarian legend, is a demon that comes before Christmas to punish naughty children. In recent years the demon has found favour in the American direct to video release market as a quick horror flick, more, I suspect to do with his look (a brown hairy goat like beast, cloven hoofed with huge horns) than with the myth itself. The idea of an evil Christmas spirit has merit and there are plenty of poor examples out there. However, where there is smoke there is fire and, as such, this film was green lit by a big studio, given a decent budget and helmed by a Brian Singer prodigy, Michael Dougherty – a director who has already taken on a ‘themed horror’ in Trick r Treat, an anthology film centred around Halloween that was a near perfect example of how to tackle the format. And thus, with Christmas in mind and a clever, witty but above all strong script we have Krampus a film that should not exist, for reasons I will go into later.
The plot of the film, as with all good films, is very simple: Max, a disillusioned child who wants nothing more than a happy Christmas for his family, has that wish ruined by the appearance of his unruly and uncouth cousins, as such he loses his hope and with it brings about ruin, for he unwittingly summons Krampus, the ‘Anti-Claus’, the Shadow of St. Nick; a Christmas demon who preys not only on his own family, but the entire neighbourhood. As with all good stories it is not just the simple layout, but the execution of its telling, and Dougherty, as we already know, is a master.
Right from the off the film plays with our perception, toying with us into what we are about to see; the opening credits show a ruthless mob on Black Friday, all in slow motion as they fight, claw and devastate the store and each other on their hunt for gifts all to the tune of Andy Williams’ Most Wonderful Time of the Year. This is a brilliantly conceived sequence, not only does it set up that we are going to be seeing a comedy, but it showcases the duplicity of Christmas, how it is supposed to be about giving, yet everyone is concerned about taking and that juxtaposed with what is about to come neatly encapsulates the whole film. Even the film’s protagonist is caught up in the mayhem; though it is not until we get home that we know why – Max was beating on a fellow student for what he perceived to be ruining other children’s Christmases by telling then the ‘truth’ about Santa. It is then we see the family unit; loving husband and wife, teenage, rebellious, daughter and younger son, Max, who is also growing up but hankers for a simpler time; a time when the family were closer – a Christmas ‘like we used to have’, with giving, love and happiness.
All his wishes, however, are about to be thrown into disarray when his mom’s sister and her unruly family turn up; there is the brash, gun loving, husband, two tomboy preteen girls, a younger (Max’s age) boy, baby, dog and even a much maligned Aunt; all of whom see Max’s family as stuck up (due to their expensive taste and clean living) and take every opportunity to needle them about it. This is expertly seen at the dinner table where they constantly bicker, berate and misbehave towards the host family who are doing everything they can to accommodate them. It is during this scene where the natural comedy comes out; this is not a poke fun at, but rather a genuinely well written and observed character study of how a dysfunctional family acts and everyone will recognise the situation. There is only one person who Max gets along with, his Omi (grandmother) a German immigrant who has a backstory that will explain the horrors to come. When the girl cousins steal Max’s letter to Santa, in which all he wants is a better time for everyone (including his aunt and her disruptive family) Max finally flips, tears the letter up and loses all his hope and Christmas spirit – the trigger for the horror to descend.
So far the film has been an excellent study of passive aggressive families doing all they can to be ‘friends’ when in truth they have nothing in common – and there is plenty of comedy drawn out of the situations. But once Max loses hope the film takes a very swift about turn and something altogether more sinister begins to emerge. The arrival of Krampus is with a neighbourhood wide power cut and a massive blizzard, essentially hemming everyone in. The first inkling the family have that something is wrong is when Max’s sister does not return from her boyfriend’s house (just around the corner) and things really turn dark.
Krampus brings with him his minions: demonic toys, dark elves and the monster himself. The creature designs are excellent. Produced by Weta Workshop just about everything is a practical effect, this gives a weight and presence to the effects, especially when the besieged family are tackling them. The toys hide a demonic presence underneath their exterior which is not explicit, but hinted at giving your own imagination free reign. Krampus himself is a masterwork of horror; shrouded in shadow, a massive cloak and a happy plastic mask hiding the horror underneath – we never really get a chance to see him in his full glory; our minds do the work making him even scarier.
Dougherty directs with a very sure hand; he keeps the pace high and the space claustrophobic – even outside the snow hems in the frame keeping everything fraught. The cast is uniformly excellent; many are from a comedy background, further enticing us down the wrong path because this film is a true horror in the purest sense – it scares us from the situation in a very credible way even though the ideas are fantastical! Even the attic scene where demonic toys attack, remains firmly in the believable stakes due to the way the characters behave; never once are you brought out of the movie asking the question “who would do that”. Additionally the film is totally fearless with regard to the characters and their fates; the first death is a teenager and, indeed, no one is safe, young or old, the demon is coming and he intends to take everyone – and the film shows this. But how, when the film is only a PG-13 (15 in the UK) i.e. made for and sold to the children’s market? By being bold and showing fate without explicit gore. In this sense the film reminded me very much of Joe Dante’s 2009 The Hole, in its early execution, but where that film loses all of its tension once the ideas are revealed, by contrast Krampus actually turns darker. As such a closer analogy might be Dante’s 1984 Gremlins, a film that manages to keep the tension going right through the run time. Krampus, believe it or not, actually tops this and keeps ramping the tension up into and beyond the climax. For just like the best horror the film has you cringing at the conclusion – but more than that, it has you questioning, thinking and smiling at the circular nature; just when you think it has wimped out, the ending manages to turn sour, albeit in a just way. In this regard it could also be seen as a film out of its time but the ideas and execution are very reminiscent of early eighties horror.
As such, Krampus should not exist: a large budgeted studio financed PG-13 horror for kids that harks back to an early time - such films simply do not get made like this anymore; and yet, Michael Dougherty has proved that taking a simple, yet effective story, playing it straight throughout and being bold with design and story choices, particularly with character fates and a sour ending, a terrific film can be made. Indeed, it is a near perfect film; a good story, well told, whose character choices are unquestionable and whose tone is matched perfectly with the execution. It is such a rare beast that I hope it will find a good audience who won’t be put off by the ‘kids horror/comedy’ tag that it has, by necessity, been labelled with.
Very highly recommended.
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