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Review: Krampus (2015)

Krampus (2015)

Directed by: Michael Dougherty

Premise: A boy who is having a lousy Christmas accidentally summons a demon to his neighborhood that punishes those who have lost the spirit of the holiday.

What Works: There is a small subgenre of Christmas horror films including Black Christmas, Santa’s Slay, and the Silent Night, Deadly Night series. Krampus is one of the better entries in the Christmas horror field and arguably the best since Gremlins. The tone of a Christmas horror movie is very important. When setting a horror story in the holiday season a sense of humor is a must. Unlike 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was unpleasantly mean spirited, Krampus has a delightful and sardonic spite to it and the picture balances humor and horror in much the same way as Evil Dead 2 and Zombieland. The tone is established effectively in the opening title sequence in which Black Friday shoppers trample each other to a soundtrack of Christmas carols. From there the movie invokes a lot of familiar holiday irritations such as the crass commercialization of the season and the stress of hosting extended family members. But more than anything, Krampus picks up on a more ephemeral pressure of the holiday season – to replicate and uphold the rosy memories of Christmases past. That’s what ultimately instigates the story. Krampus centers on a pre-teen boy, played by Emjay Anthony, who wishes for this Christmas to be the way he remembered the holiday. That wish is articulated in a letter to Santa and Anthony’s character is humiliated when the letter is intercepted by his cruel cousins and read aloud at the dinner table. It’s the boy’s dejection that ultimately summons Krampus. Anthony does a terrific job in the role and he is convincingly on the threshold between childhood fantasy and teenage jadedness. The rest of the core cast is also quite good including Adam Scott and Toni Collette as his parents and especially Krista Stadler as the German grandmother who knows what’s really going on. They ground the movie in a recognizable reality that sells the fantasy. Once the assault on the house begins, the filmmakers successfully combine scares and laughs, occasionally at the same time, but the jokes never take the audience out of the moment. Krampus is a monster movie and it features some distinct and bizarre creatures. This movie has a retro feel about it; many of the monsters are done practically and they recall creature features of the 1980s like The Thing, Critters, and Puppet Master. The monsters of Krampus have a look that is visually tactile but also unreal in a way that is unsettling even while it’s frighteningly enjoyable.  

What Doesn’t: Krampus is a PG-13 horror picture. However, this is pretty strong stuff for younger viewers, more so than Jurassic World or Insidious, and parents ought to keep that in mind. The film suffers from some weakness in its storytelling. Supernatural horror movies of this type need a “Van Helsing scene” that lays out what is going on and how to survive. In similar movies like Demon Knight and From Dusk Till Dawn this scene occurs early but it comes quite late in Krampus which lessens the tension. Krampus is structured like a slasher film; the movie introduces a group of people who are mostly stereotypes and then knocks them off one by one. The victims of Krampus aren’t especially sympathetic and so there isn’t a lot of dread to be had over whether the family members survive. This picture borrows from a lot from other Christmas movies but none more so than National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Like that film, Krampus is based around a wealthy suburban family hosting their country bumpkin relatives, the uncle played by David Koechner is basically Randy Quaid’s cousin Eddie, and many sequences and gags are imported directly from the National Lampoon picture.

Bottom Line: Krampus is a very good Christmas horror show. Audiences who relish a good holiday horror film are going to enjoy what the movie provides and there is something more going on underneath the surface of Krampus that makes it a Christmas horror film for our time.  

Episode: #573 (December 13, 2015)