Michael Dougherty describes the title character of his latest holiday-themed horror film, Krampus, as the "shadow of St. Nicholas". I was intrigued enough by this statement--and by Red Letter Media's glowing review--to go and see the movie.
Horror fans are probably aware of Dougherty's spooky gem Trick 'r Treat--the best horror anthology film since Creepshow. With Trick 'r Treat, Dougherty made his name as an even-handed director capable of achieving the kind of elusive balance between comedy, sentimentality, and horror epitomized by the likes of Joe Dante's Gremlins.
Has Dougherty brought his magic touch to Krampus? Mike and Jay implied as much. Having seen the movie, I concur--with two caveats. Weighing the full merit of this film requires discussing the ending, which Half in the Bag understandably didn't do. For completeness' sake, I will. So...
Director Michael Dougherty's take on the venerable Krampus legend concerns a dysfunctional family (more accurately, a stock Hollywood middle class family and their stereotypically psychotic in-laws) who gather on the penultimate night of Advent in preparation for their traditional Christmas festivities. Envy and alcohol-fueled infighting ensue.
The host family's youngest child--a precocious, irascible boy named Max--nurses a sort of fierce secular devotion to the St. Nicholas of Coke ads and greeting cards. Thanks to the solid dialogue and refreshingly capable child actor Emjay Anthony, it's easily understood that Max's atavistic belief in Santa stems from his deep nostalgia for family Christmases past, which he's most likely viewing through rose-colored glasses, anyway.
Max's desire to make Christmas "how it used to be" is a transparent attempt to retreat from reality and delay the passage from childhood to adolescence. If you doubt my interpretation, consider Max's plea in his letter to Santa for his big sister to hang out with him like she used to. The reason she no longer hangs out with him is because she has a boyfriend. Unlike Max, his sister is growing up.
Humiliated at the hands of his tomboy caricature of a cousin, Max despairs of his Christmas wishes and destroys his letter to Santa. A severe blizzard blows in. The lights go out. An impossible snowman is seen on the front lawn, and the houseful of malcontents realize they're trapped together.
The first thing I thought of. Coincidence?
Total mayhem soon rears its horned head, ushering in a reign of satisfyingly PG-13 terror. The (almost too old to believably have a Gen Xer son) German lady knows the score. She informs the family that they're contending, not against nature, vandals, or a garden variety spree killer, but with an ancient spirit of the alpine air which men call the Krampus.
Much like a Japanese game show, the Krampus doesn't reward virtue. He punishes ignorance--and other vices, particularly despair. In a rather gutsy move outside of R-rated pictures, the Krampus achieves a total party wipe against his shallow, surly prey via Twilight Zone-esque poetic justice.
The Half in the Bag review is well worth your time, but they miss a couple of things that I'll address below.
I liked the majority of what this movie brought to the table. It maintains a vintage 80s horror-comedy feel with almost total consistency. Contrary to RLM's bold pronouncement, Krampus isn't perfect, though it's easy to see how a couple of drunken pseudo-hipsters (God bless them) could miss the two biggest warts on this otherwise fine film.
Let's get into specifics.
Mood and tone
Krampus scores a triumph where most major Hollywood movies stumble. RLM nailed the film's tone when they said it felt like somebody found a lost script by Chris Columbus that had been languishing in a drawer for thirty years and decided to film it.
The pacing helps to set the mood. For example, the first act gives us the kind of painstaking characterization that most directors must think they can't get away with these days. We learn all we need to know about the protagonist, his family, and their relationships as they go about preparing for Christmas.
There are better film makers who would have mistakenly rushed the setup for fear of short attention spans. Dougherty extends more credit to his audience.
The film's opening deserves special mention. A rabid horde of shoppers descend on a generic big box store in a scene that could have been culled from a highlight reel of Black Friday excess. All to the dulcet notes of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas". The rebuke of consumerism is as tonally perfect as it is scathing. There's just no other way this film could have started.
Visuals and audio
Being a horror flick (and not the highbrow psychological kind), Krampus had to feature some blood and kills. However, this movie is rated PG-13. There's no graphic gore, and the violence is mostly slapstick-level.
That doesn't mean the film's not scary. The creature designs (thankfully done with practical effects as much as possible) are worthy of Jim Henson or Guillermo del Toro. The Krampus and his mischievous helpers improve upon the impressive design feats that Dougherty managed in Trick 'r Treat.
As for the kills, we rarely see them, but Douhgerty knows the old horror truism that feeding the audience's imagination with implied horrors can produce greater fear than simply showing them.
The Krampus himself is a chilling visual composite of mythic imagery, Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, the Grinch, and Leatherface. Then there's the killer jack-in-the-box...
One area where the movie really shines is the often overlooked dimension of sound design. Everything from the eerie howl of the wind to the tittering of demon-infested toys subtly draws you into the action.
Story and Character
Despite its lowly horror movie status, Krampus comfortably rubs elbows with such august company as Scrooge (or for that matter, Scrooged) and W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw". The anti-consumerist, pro-family themes are refreshing and, frankly, gutsy for a Hollywood film. The "take care not to summon what you can't dismiss" moral is handled well. Most of the key performances are genuine and effective.
There are two places where Krampus drops the ball, though: one thematic and one pertaining to characterization. I'll address them in reverse order.
So yeah, the ill-mannered in-laws who basically play the antagonists for the first act. There's no sugar-coating this, so I may as well show you (the two on the left are from the normal family).
The Krampus cast, in ascending order of sideshow employability
Now, I understand quite well that no one currently working in Hollywood hangs out with--or has even talked to--anyone with a home address outside of a Super Zip. The taste makers and manufacturers of culture live inside hermetically sealed epistemic closure bubbles where no unapproved thought may trespass.
Mike Dougherty deserves a lot of credit. He should be proud of what he's achieved. But damn, did he have to create an entire family populated solely with flyover country stereotypes?
There's more. Not only do the tired cliches encompass the whole family, they exhibit every single hick, red state, Christian, and conservative stereotype in Hollywood's dogeared playbook.
The husband is a Humvee-driving,
climate change global warming-denying Republican who clings to his guns, drinks to excess, and has no discernible manners. Worse, he and his mousy, overweight wife have more than the socially acceptable 1.5 kids--two of whom (both girls) participate in sports because their father wishes they were boys.
But don't worry, because the v-neck sweater wearing yuppie who's such an awesome father that his son starts brawls at Christmas pageants totally exposes the blowhard redneck as an ineffectual coward.
Dougherty recovers some points for giving the redneck gun nut a couple of humanizing moments--mostly consisting of admitting he was wrong for calling his wimpy brother-in-law a wimp when the latter inexplicably manifests badass firearm skills.
But in the end, no character's moral fibre truly matters, due to the movie's second and worst sin.
Nothing that anybody does after the inciting incident matters.
After the freak blizzard starts and a few people have disappeared, German Grandma spills the beans about the Krampus in a nifty flashback sequence that's CG but looks like the stop motion in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Nightmare Before Christmas produced bastard offspring. In other words: awesome!
In this visually menacing flashback, we learn that Grandma summoned the Krampus one Christmas in the aftermath of WWII when her town wasn't feeling particularly jolly (I wonder why). She tells how he dragged her family to hell but left her as a warning to others--much like Keyeser Soze.
What did the Krampus want to warn people about? The folly of despair.
This is a crucial point, because it's explicitly stated that the Krampus came in response to Max and his grandma's despair. Grandma even mentions the specific kind of despair that deserves this special punishment: losing the Christmas spirit of sacrificial giving.
As far as contrived Hollywood "True Meanings of Christmas" go--especially from a director who's probably never met a practicing Christian--that's not a bad try. I was willing to give Dougherty the benefit of the doubt. Then I watched the ending.
Max sees his family picked off by yuletide horrors until only he is left. The Krampus gives him the same deal he gave Grandma: you can live with what you've done as a warning to others.
But just before the Krampus blows town on his wicked death metal sleigh, Max approaches him to offer his own life in exchange for his family of selfish Germans and rednecks. The kid even goes so far as to apologize.
What does the Krampus do? Krampus proves he's in the same rarefied villain league as Darth Vader by chucking the dude who just offered him an apology into a flaming hell pit.
Don't misunderstand. I hold the Krampus in the highest regard. I'd sooner destroy a stained glass window than criticize an artist like the Krampus. Michael Dougherty, on the other hand, brazenly violated his own movie's explicit moral theme. That sin is called lying to your audience.
Max abandoned hope out of frustration, and he paid the price. I can get behind that. Even though it's harsh, there's a respectable Old Testament thoroughness in the fact that his family shares the punishment, even if they don't personally deserve it.
But in a movie based on legends connected with a Christian holiday in which Christian figures like St. Nicholas are presented as being real, Max's condemnation even after he repents shatters the whole thematic framework of the movie.
Want to know what the real spirit of Christmas is? It's lying prostrate before God, overcome with gratitude that he sent his Son to take the punishment that we all deserve. Dougherty is right that hope is a proper attitude at Christmas. What's more, he's right that we're to place our hope in sacrificial giving (and one gift in particular).
Where Krampus goes off the rails is at the point where the story should give us something to hope for and instead comes up with jack squat. Max's family is still damned at the end, and there's nothing anyone could've done about it from the moment he tore up the letter.
Such an ironic downer ending might be clever, but it contradicts its own moral center. Christmas is about hope in God's sacrificial gift of himself. I know it's too much to ask for a major motion picture to openly articulate Christian soteriology, But based on the stated moral premises alone, Max's apology and self-sacrifice should have at least got his family off the hook. His failed repentance creates an internal paradox where despair is an unforgivable sin, but there's nothing to hope for. We get St. Nick's shadow, but no St. Nick.
If St. Nicholas is punching you, it's because a) you deserve it, and b) he loves you; not because he's edgy.
Krampus also wastes the chance to go out with a far more potent emotional impact by taking the dark and nihilistic route. Let's say that the Krampus takes Max's offer, and his sacrifice saves his family. Dougherty could have done this by adding a single shot at the very end. Doing so would have turned Max into a Christ figure--perhaps the most popular and effective kind of protagonist in Western storytelling. Even far darker films like Event Horizon take advantage of this trope.
How did they not think to use a Christ figure in a freaking Christmas movie!? Is Hollywood's allergy to all that is wholesome and true that severe?
Watch Krampus for the 80s horror-comedy nostalgia, the top notch visual and sound design, and the well-executed scares--right up until the point when Max wakes up and comes downstairs on Christmas morning. If you leave the theater or stop the video right there, it's a phenomenal movie.