I hate to be a Harry Knowles here but I was incredibly excited for Krampus, largely for personal reasons relating to my late grandmother. My mother’s side of the family is largely German in ancestry. My grandmother was herself a German immigrant, and with her she brought a multitude of traditions my mother’s side of the family adheres to to this day.
Now my grandma passed away when I was very young (around 5 or 6) so the memories I have of her are largely a little foggy. As grandmother typically privy to do, so spoiled me greatly with toys and treats. She indulged my flights of fantasy regarding my ultimate goal of becoming either A) Batman, B) a paleontologist or some mad mixture of the two.
One thing I vividly remember about her however is her love of Christmas, which in turn has been passed down to my mother. This ranged from a holiday recipes to Christmas songs.
These traditions also included bedtime stories…
This of course included regaling me with tales of the Krampus and the basis of my nightmares for many years.
For those who may be unaware, Krampus is basically Santa’s shadow a.k.a demon helper who basically handles all of the bad kids whereas jolly old Saint Nick gives presents to the good ones. How does he go about doing this you may ask? Why by kidnapping you, placing you in a basket, whipping you with birch branches and finishing it all off by dragging your sorry ass to Hell. There are different interpretations of the legend but this is the one my großmutter loved to warn me, in her heavy yet lovable accent, about during the holidays…or just random parts of the year…or when I was bad…particularly when I was bad. Okay, almost exclusively when I was bad or being a brat.
Now the legend of the Krampus is no secret cult icon. The Krampuslauf is an alcohol fueled celebration held in places all across the world this weekend. The character/legend is a staple of many European countries’ holiday traditions, particularly in the Alpine regions of Europe. I am not from those places however. I am from a small town in Oklahoma, therefore I am not friends with many people that grew up the looming threat of Krampus during their childhoods. People tend to (or at least used to) give me bemused smirks when I relate how this horrible goat man used to keep me up at night. Lately though the character seems to have a new found popularity here in the states which I hope means little kids here in Oklahoma are starting to sweat now that we are in the throws of December and old, Mr. Krampus is ready to punish any that choose not to believe.
This is a story that binds me to my grandma, and while scary at the time, makes me laugh and warm with gentle waves of nostalgia. I only had a precious amount of time with her before she died and since I was very young, I often fret that I never appreciated her enough. Having something, even something as silly as Krampus, that I can connect to is pretty important to me. So the notion of a big-budget, wide release Krampus film obviously perked my interest and after seeing the trailer, the movie jumped pretty in “my must see movies” list of the year. We don’t get a lot of Yuletide flicks that break the mold any more these days. Let alone Christmas horror comedies. Throw in the fact that this is directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, who brought us Trick ‘r Treat (one of the better horror anthology films to come out in the past decade and perfectly captures the spirit of Halloween) and you should have a recipe for one bonkers and memorable ride of a Christmas movie, right?
Well wrong in the sense of it being really memorable. Krampus is a movie that could have benefited with more risks; be a movie that really raised its middle finger to tradition and be its own thing. While it certainly has some inspired and utterly bonkers sequences, they were too few and far between for me, leaving a movie begging to go against the grain being utterly in line with whats expected and even worse: boring.
“When his dysfunctional family clashes over the holidays, young Max (Emjay Anthony) is disillusioned and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know, this lack of festive spirit has unleashed the wrath of Krampus: a demonic force of ancient evil intent on punishing non-believers. All hell breaks loose as beloved holiday icons take on a monstrous life of their own, laying siege to the fractured family’s home and forcing them to fight for each other if they hope to survive.” – IMDb.com
I hate to be a humbug, but this movie just didn’t do it for me throughout large sections. Much like Gremlins ( a superior movie that this movie desperately attempts to emulate), this goes for a lot of crazy, only technically family-friendly antics but lacks the pace and bite of the earlier movie. What ultimately hurts this movie the most is how slow and steady it takes in setting up its not particularly interesting and/or compelling characters, which is a shame considering the cast includes the likes of Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Allison Tolman. All of this set up would be fine if the pay off were better. Their characters are largely painted in broad strokes, speaking in most cliches. For the first 30 minutes, the movie is largely dedicated to setting these characters up which would be great if they were actual characters. The cast tries their damndest with what they get, with even David Koechner doing his best to add a little humanity to the stock, immigrant-hating, gun-toting jackass. I do have a special spot for Krista Stadler’s Omi however as she is almost exactly how I remember my grandma. (She didn’t exclusively speak in German, but as I remember, her accent was really thick and she slipped in the occasionally slipped in a German word here and there. My mom attests that she would exclusively swear in German however.)
The tone of the movie is more realistic (well, as realistic as a movie about the Krampus can be) instead of campy. I think I may have liked something that leaned a bit more towards the campy or at the very least pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a PG-13. When it works, this movie is a treat harkening back to the days when directors like Joe Dante, Tim Burton or John Landis would take audiences on a wild, insane ride, rally against convention and never losing sight of humanity in the shuffle.
There are a lot of little nods, homages, references, possible rips off to other Christmas (and even other horror comedies) films throughout such as the narrative use of an advent calendar and a family not terribly unlike Cousin Eddie’s from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as well as an assault by some particularly evil gingerbread men that is basically an exact salute to this scene from Army of Darkness…
All of these come together to make a somewhat passable, albeit completely enjoyable, movie. And I want to stress that. This movie was a lot of fun when things started moving and for the most part, the other things it homages are ultimately for the best. Any movie that casually throws in a Calvin and Hobbes reference and alludes to Tremors is going to be a fun time at the cinema for me.
Maybe I just went into this with too high of expectations. Like I said before, this movie strives to be something akin to Gremlins in that it wants to balance horror and comedy. It unfortunately never really hits it out of the park on either fronts. The moments of inspired lunacy come later in the movie and when they do things pick up considerably. There is a sequence that takes place in an attic in which the Krampus’ toys make an appearance that may go down as one of the best of the year. Crazy thing after crazy thing keeps happening. The movie would have benefited more from having scenes like this. When things quiet down, the scenes are pretty hit and miss as we’re reminded that these characters aren’t altogether interesting. Now, you may argue “Tyler, you ignorant slut. We didn’t come for the characters. We came for the Krampus.” True, but Krampus can’t be onscreen all the time. This isn’t the Godzilla argument in which it is a movie that is expected to have boring characters that simply serve as canon fodder. This is a horror comedy. Horror comedies (or just about any genre movie) need to have characters we are at least a little empathetic to so we take the ride with them.
One incredibly high praise this movie deserves land squarely on its effects. Some of the puppets used throughout are just phenomenal and dare-I-say WONDERFUL. (There. I technically did say it was ‘WONDERFUL’, Natalie.) The Krampus puppet is a spectacular puppet (with some clever CGI enhancement) that rivals anything you’ve seen in Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal. He looks like the typical Krampus you see in a lot of artist renditions but appears to be wearing human skin he is clearly too big for or like he’s wearing the actual Santa as a costume. There is a sequence in which he jumps from rooftop to rooftop, ending with him attempting to get to a girl under a car, that is great and really blends the CG with the practical, hitting that sweet spot that only occurs when the two play off each other symbiotically. The Krampus design was really unique and one of the best creature designs I’ve seen in a while. Similarly his toy helpers are what appear to be demons in the guise of a jack-in-the-box (I fully expect this character to be the thing people remember the most about this film…when he starts clapping at the arrival of the elves…), Christmas tree angel, a teddy bear and a robot. It’s this recurring imagery of a perverted Christmas that really stuck with me. In fact, on a purely technical level this movie is Academy Award worthy. Sound design, set design, special effects, score, etc are all top notch and deserve commendation.
Another thing that I really appreciated was that this is a good, albeit not amazing, gateway horror movie. Like the aforementioned Gremlins or Ghostbusters or even Poltergeist, this is a movie that is scary (at times) but not too scary to bring the kids, and in my opinion kids’ movies these days really need to scar kids in the same way we were scarred and not a hell of whole lot of family movies do that anymore. It does rely a little too much on jump scares for my liking, but they never really get too annoying.
I’m also thankful a movie like this exists at all. Oh there have been a slew of low budget Krampus-themed movies, and they almost universally suck. So utter props to Universal for actually taking a risk and letting this legend have the budget it deserves. I only wish the script and/or story was a little bit more…”out there.”
The film’s ending is probably going to be a bit divisive but honestly I prefer it to the happy, clean alternative that was teased. I just interpreted it as the family is trapped in some kind of Christmas purgatory forever, paying for their sins just like the way the grandmother alluded to in her story and as we learned in the Fairly Oddparents Christmas special, there is no worse hell than Christmas everyday for the rest of eternity….also this song…
I was also kind of disappointed that there wasn’t an appearance by Santa at the end but I ultimately accept that would have been out of place given the more grounded approach this movie takes. It would have been cool/insane, but the two characters really aren’t presented as rivals here nor are they in traditional folklore. Instead they are more separate sides of the same coin so having them fight wouldn’t have made a ton of sense tonally so I guess it is for the best that they avoided it.
-END OF SPOILERS-
For what it is, Krampus is pretty damn fun. Hell, I hope I end up being on the wrong side of history on this one. It’d be great if I warmed up to this in time added it to my Christmas movie canon alongside A Christmas Story, Elf, Scrooged, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Batman Returns and Die Hard but for based on my initial viewing, I’m more lukewarm. I wanted to LOVE this movie. I left liking it. For now, I’ll have to file this one under…