NOVEMBER 12, 2015
I don't know what it is about making mean-spirited Christmas movies that just gets me all giddy; when I think about my favorite holiday films, with the exception of Die Hard they all have a mean streak: Gremlins, both Black Christmases, Silent Night Deadly Night, Scrooged... and now Krampus can join that lineup, blending Christmas Vacation's family dynamic with Gremlins' sense of "family friendly" horror. In fact, much like Gremlins was one of the films that inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating, Krampus might be the one that finally gets the MPAA to create something in between PG-13 and R. If you thought Gremlins' "Santa Claus in the chimney" story was dark... yikes. But again, that sort of thing just speaks to my sensibilities, and I was legitimately CACKLING throughout most of the movie.
Director Michael Dougherty (working from a script he wrote with Zach Shields and Todd Casey) paces the film incredibly well, giving us time to know the 11 people who will be terrorized by the title character and his minions in the film's second half. Our hero family is led by Adam Scott and Toni Collette, who seem to be well off but unhappy, with Scott's mom living with them while raising a standard bratty teenaged girl and a pre-teen son who still believes in Santa. David Koechner fills the Cousin Eddie role as the gun-loving husband of Allison Tolman's character (Tolman and Collette are sisters), and they even throw a bit of a nod to the original Vacation by springing a bitchy aunt on them as a "surprise". Plus they have four of their own kids (including a baby), setting up a big group of characters you assume will be totally safe for this PG-13 movie.
Without spoiling who, let's just say that there is shockingly a sufficient body count offered in the movie, something I was not expecting at all. I mean, the bitchy Aunt is a given and MAYBE Scott's elderly mother, but I couldn't see anyone else being picked off. Indeed, early on the daughter goes to see her boyfriend, and the veteran horror viewer in me thought "Oh, the boyfriend can provide the bloodshed so we can get our fix without actually seeing a family get decimated on Christmas" (ditto for a delivery man), but (spoiler!) the boyfriend is apparently dead before the girl even gets there, and it's pretty obvious that she joins him soon thereafter. It's pretty rare to off any of a family unit in one of these things - I mean, if you think about Gremlins, none of the Peltzers end up dead, you know? That's not the case here.
And while you might think that might come off as pretty grim, it's not the case. Even with my stupid dad gene making me oversensitive to this sort of stuff in horror (even watching the Friday the 13th movies last week, I started thinking about how sad Rob and Sandra's parents must be to lose both their children in one week), I never got bummed out by any of the carnage. The humor certainly helped - Adam Scott is, as always, effortlessly hilarious, earning one of the biggest laughs with a mere sigh, and Koechner has got the dimwitted asshole routine down to a science by now. And I've been totally smitten with Allison Tolman since Fargo, so it delighted me that she scored what might have been my favorite non-horror related laugh with a passive aggressive snipe at her sister's fondness for fancy food. And the aunt is played by veteran scene-stealer Conchata Ferrell, so you know she's got some good lines in there. In other words, even if Krampus and co. hadn't shown up, I would have been enjoying this Ref-like look at a family who hates each other but is forced to try to get along for Christmas.
But alas, a goat monster, killer gingerbread men, and one freakishly terrifying Jack in the Box all show up and wreak havoc on the joint. The FX are pretty astonishing for the most part, with Dougherty employing a healthy blend of practical and CGI to bring his various creatures to life. Given that the title monster would have been enough I was happily surprised to see all of the others, giving the film a more madcap, (again) Gremlins-y flair at times - while also using Krampus sparingly, making his moments count instead of (over)using him as a lone boogeyman. Turns out one of the people in the house has crossed paths with him before (a flashback that plays out in an animated sequence - so good), and their little reunion serves as the bulk of his stuff, while everyone else battles the more insane, Evil Dead 2-esque assortment of things coming to life (the payoff for a bit about Collette getting Mom's Christmas tree angel instead of Tolman is perfect).
In fact, even with the harsh stuff, it's actually a pretty good gateway horror movie for kids. It might give them a few nightmares (seriously, that Jack in the Box is goddamn disturbing), but unlike Gremlins they don't come down hard on the "No Santa" thing (in fact it kind of reinforces the idea that he exists in a roundabout way), and the young son will give them a peer to take the journey with, something Gremlins didn't really have (Corey Feldman got phased out of the movie so he doesn't count). There's an F bomb, but no gore or anything, and (goes without saying since the only characters are a family unit) no sex stuff, so it's also a better option than Christmas Vacation or Scrooged ("Can't even SEE the nipple!"). Not saying it's a better MOVIE than those, but if your 7 or 8 year old is curious I think it's pretty much an OK choice if you know when to block their ears.
However, the pacing can get a bit wonky, particularly when everyone leaves the house. I won't get into what happens there, but Dougherty rushes through some things and then drags out the aftermath, with one of our heroes very slowly trying to save one of the others from some Krampus-y ritual. I don't know if staying in the house would have fixed the issue, but since it starts almost as soon as they walk out the front door I have to assume it's at least partially to blame - holing up in the film's primary location for the big climax is always preferable to going off into an anonymous exterior, in my opinion. Especially when the house is big and kind of under utilized - we only see one of what has to be at least four bedrooms, there's probably a basement and/or a garage that could have been used for a setpiece, etc. In fact it kind of looks like the Home Alone house from the outside, and I couldn't help but think of how I could probably draw a decent map of that film's setting from memory, but am still unsure as to how this house all fit together. Is this a crippling problem? No, not at all - but the best part of the movie is when there are like three different fights going on at once throughout different parts of the house, so I can't help but wish they spread out even more instead of spending most of the movie huddle together in the living room.
Otherwise, this worked like gangbusters for me. I was won over instantly, with an opening sequence showing a typical Black Friday-esque mob trampling each other, beating each other up, and then bitterly waiting in line (set to the tune of "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" - and yes I know this is basically copied from Jingle All The Way but it's too funny an idea to waste on a middling Arnold comedy from the 90s), but the real meat of the movie delighted me just as much for the most part. The ending was ultimately satisfying (be patient! I know you'll groan about something but it works out, I promise), the creature work is terrific, and the cast was game for everything Dougherty threw them. It might not unseat your current favorite Christmas horror movie like his Trick 'r Treat did for Halloween for some (not for me, of course, though I'll be first to admit he invoked the spirit of the holiday much more successfully than Carpenter did), but it'll find its way into your rotation for sure. Counting down until I can show Will...
What say you?