The legendary festive demon is making something of a resurgence, especially as more and more of us become increasingly jaded towards the consumerism of the season and start to wish for a giant goat-man to come and stuff the mean people into a big sack and drag them away.
Sadly I’m not even sure the 2015 family horror film Krampus ever made it to my local cinema, which is a shame, because the trailer had me immediately curious. I’m a fan of the mythology, and I was more than a little curious as to what could be made from it. Having seen it, I think I still have a lot more to be curious about.
Our film begins with a short montage that rather effectively sums up “The Problem” with Christmas: the ever mounting obsession with buying for Christmas, the aggressive ways in which break our own backs and crack each other’s skulls in pursuit of a perfect day that can’t exist in the face of the violence exacted to do so. There’s some kind of beautiful metaphor in there somewhere. We close on a nativity play brought to a halt by a similar fist fight between eleven-year-olds, just proving that when it comes to Christmas we never really grow up.
Being all in slow motion makes it all seem comical and over the top, and yet it’s a point that they then proceed to make far more subtly afterwards. We see the German Grandmother baking cookies told not to work too hard because her son bought some in, and the look she gives his retreating back speaks volumes to her opinion on bought cookies.
And right there we’ve hit upon the heart of this film’s problem within the first five minutes. The opening montage is the perfect set-up for a comedy-horror, the scene that immediately follows it would have been perfect for a straight horror. This is a film that simply cannot pick a side in that dichotomy, but can’t really settle anywhere in between either. I’ll cover that a little more shortly.
With the arrival of the rest of the family we start to see the cause of the conflict. Our hero, our doe-eyed little boy who still believes in Santa has his final ounce of faith shattered by the mounting tensions of his cold and aloof parents, and boorish and obnoxious aunt, uncle and cousins. It culminates in one of his cousins reading aloud his heartfelt letter to St. Nick, which doesn’t ask for presents, it only asks for the happiness of his family and a Christmas they could all enjoy. In a rage our hero tears up the letter and throws it out of the window.
Which is where our trouble begins…
Everything changes with the coming of the blizzard that shuts off the power and leaves them all stranded and alone. Well, alone except for the delivery guy who shows up so they can reveal the mysterious sacks of presents left on the doorstep.
Our build up is rather masterful, mystery is built up through the growing number of Calvin & Hobbes style snowmen that materialise outside of the family house, the discovery of former attack sites like the neighbours house in which the chimney has been broken outwards, and our first glimpse of our eponymous monster reveals enough to be worried and leaves enough concealed to make his final out of a fireplace particularly awesome to watch.
Worthy of note actually, the first scene that shows the Krampus is superb; a hunched and shuffling shape on a rooftop with great curling horns, all wrapped in rattling chains adorned with jingle-bells, and then it suddenly bursts into gracefully leaping from house to house at incredible speeds, landing heavily in front of the first on-screen victim. That’s some huge horror credibility right there that you will later undo for me.
Soon after we are greeted with the entry of our evil minions, starting with the Gingerbread men who are a little too cutesy to be scary; thing under the snow which rattles off some of the classic horror film soundboard, pig squeals, howling from John Carpenter’s Thing, a lot of very familiar stuff. The sack on the doorstep is given just long enough for a perfect pay-off, revealing some of the best designed murder-toys I have ever seen. A killer jack-in-the-box worm, a porcelain cherub with razor hands, a vicious teddy, and a stab-bot, all make for a terrifying tag team when cooperating to kill off several of the family members at once. It was during this scene that I finally felt like I knew where Krampus was going, and was immediately proven wrong.
“You packed guns, on Christmas?” “Always be prepared, boyscout”
One of the biggest bugbears I have in this film is the sheer volume of quips and one liners that seem crammed into place, either in an effort to make the film quotable, or to tick as many cliches off the list as possible. At the reveal of the Jack-In-The-Box worm we are treated to an “Oh, come on”, followed shortly by a “You gotta be kidding me.” Sentiments I found myself repeating in kind. In fact the Jack-Worm could have been killed off in quite superb style if the dumb aunt hadn’t taken the time to give a one-liner, instead they send the dog into the air vents after it in one of the more dumb ideas I’ve seen from a horror film cast.
The German Grandmother is easily the worst offender. I shan’t spoil the moment, but right before one of her best scenes she actually delivers a line from E.T. in the most unsubtle fashion.
And finally, let’s not forget the film’s catchphrase: “A shepherd watches over his flock” brought up when ever the subject of guns, or protecting the family comes up. It seems oddly shoehorned into dialogue, and the only possible reason for its continued presence is as some hint as to what the film is trying to get at, the “real” meaning of Christmas, and if that’s the case than that also seems out of place.
Amidst all of this we appear to have a film that is highly indecisive. When it does horror, it does it superbly well, and yet there are elements that are far too adorable or hackneyed to take seriously. But there’s one scene that reveals all. An animated flash-back that seems strangely like a Tim Burton reference that has no place in this conflicted flick.
It’s a family horror!
Adorable enemies, kid protagonist, cute dog side-kick, heroic granny, festive swearing and above all a notable lack of blood and gore. Our creators have tried to fit themselves into the same niche as Gremlins, but they don’t appear to have quite hit the mark. Instead I feel like two great films were made here, and I didn’t get to see either of them.
Watch Krampus. There’s a hell of a lot to love in this film, some amazing design decisions, great practical effects, and a finale that nicely twists the classic “It was all a dream or was it?” ending. Plenty of scenes in this film could actually be held up as prime examples of how it should be done, and yet we’re also treated to plenty of moments so lousy that you wonder if they’ll ever make another Krampus film again.
That said, I hear Rare Exports might well be the only film to better this one, when telling a Krampus tale.