RUNNING TIME: 98 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Krampus is available on digital download now, and is coming to Blu-ray™ and DVD on 25th April 2016, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
On December 22, a family gets together to celebrate the holidays – Tom and Sarah; their children Beth and Max; Sarah’s sister Linda and her husband Howard; their children Stevie, Jordan, Howie Jr. and their newborn daughter; Sarah and Linda’s aunt Dorothy; and Tom’s German mother, Omi. Max wants to continue the family’s Christmas traditions, but tension in the family keeps everyone from having a good time. When Stevie and Jordan steal his letter to Santa Claus and read it out loud at dinner, Max screams that he hates his family, tears the letter apart and throws the pieces out the window. A snowstorm suddenly appears and cuts out power in the entire town. The following day, a snowman suddenly appears in their front yard, unordered boxes are delivered, a mysterious large bag of presents is left by their door, and Beth, as she decides to walk to her boyfriend’s house after he doesn’t answer her texts, hears sleigh bells and sees a tall, horned figure on a rooftop….
While there certainly have been horror films depicting cuddly old Father Christmas as a scary figure, none of them can really be said to have been high profile, while it wasn’t until 2013 that we got a film about Krampus, the apparently awful Krampus The Christmas Devil. In Alpine folklore, Krampus is a horned human-like but demonic figure who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. The character seems to be catching on quite a bit in the US, surprise surprise, to the consternation of many who believe it’s something of an assault on Christmas. One day, I’d like to see a really dark, perverse movie depicting the figure is his original incarnation, but in the meantime we have Krampus, a both funny and slightly scary Christmas movie which is kind of a twisted variant on A Christmas Carol. It’s a solid, if unremarkable except for one major ingredient, blackly comic chiller that satirises what is supposedly the merriest time of the year but still has just a little bit of a warmth and messaging without seeming sickly to those of us old curmudgeons who have become highly cynical [I plead guilty] about all this Christmas stuff. In fact, I’d say it gets that balance just about right.
It’s very much an 80’s style ‘family’ horror movie in the vein of Gremlins, though it reminded me more of those cheap, cheerful and quirky Charles Band direct-to-video efforts like Puppet Master and Demonic Toys [films which I do recall really enjoying but I have a feeling may not hold up so well now], though without the gruesome deaths you often got in those films. In fact, I feel that the 15 certificate it’s received in the UK is a little harsh when you consider some of the films, from The Dark Knight to the last Hunger Games movie, that have received 12A ratings but don’t really deserve them. I’m not saying that Krampus should really be a 12A rating, a rating which is used for so many films that it’s become laughable, but I am surprised at the BBFC’s decision here as it seems to go against the overall ‘12A for nearly everything’ that they recently seem to have adopted. In any case, Krampus certainly does have its frightening moments, though not quite as many as I had expected. In fact, it was some of the imagery that got to me more and creeped me out. I will say that the film doesn’t really suffer from its lack of gore, something that has led to it being criticised by some horror fans, and it does have quite a mean, if blackly comic, spirit to compensate!
The opening credits occur over images of Black Friday mayhem, something which really shows the horror of what Christmas has become, and is given an ironic slant by the somewhat appropriate music being played over it. In fact, while this is something I would normally mention near the end of a review, I’ll say right now that Krampus brilliantly uses Christmas songs [which I personally find more horrifying than most of the other things we associate with Christmas, though partly because at this time of the year I’m forced to listen to them all day long] as both score and source music throughout. After the very pointed opening, the film then continues the great job it’s doing of nailing some of the bad things about the holiday season by gradually building the unease which occurs when relatives who may actually really hate each other decide to spend time with each other. Tom pours wine into his tea cup and Sarah pops pills in anticipation of the visitors they’re about to receive, and things eventually come to a heat at the dinner table where bickering, digs and plain insults are the order of the day. This table sequence is superbly paced, well written, and nicely performed by the likes of Adam Scott, David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell, the film choosing to have a mainly comedic cast who can still pull off the more serious stuff later. In fact, I was so enjoying things like Aunt Dorothy’s inappropriate comments and Howard’s gun-craziness that I wish the scene had been a bit longer and that the film would have waited just a bit more before bad things begin to happen. But no, it’s not long before they all wake up to find that the power has gone, then some eerie events start to occur, climaxing in a quite unnerving moment where Krampus is seen atop some rooftops, blurry and indistinct in a snow storm, by teenage Beth, followed by an especially tense ‘hiding under the car’ bit.
The film soon resolves itself into the family having to fight off lots of Christmas toys and even living cookies, alternating with lots of good old creeping around in the dark. The suspense could have been ramped up a little, but some of the creations are quite unsettling [especially if, like me, you don’t find things like Jack In The Boxes exactly pleasant in the first place]. A large puppet is especially memorable and he’s given some character too, wiping his mouth after eating, clapping his hands when backup is coming, and embracing one of his allies when he shows up. All the creatures seem to be having so much fun tormenting this family. Even better, most, though not quite all, of these things are realised with old-style practical effects which compare with the best you can find in similar 80’s pictures. The praise this, and other select films this year which have refused to entirely go down the ‘CG I for everything’ route, is reassuring and bodes well for the future considering it wasn’t long ago where I worried that the skills employed in creating old school effects were starting to disappear forever. Unfortunately, Krampus himself doesn’t feature much in the film at all, while the climax isn’t as exciting as it should be and the film then decides to give us two endings, a ‘light’ and a ‘dark’ one, none of which make much sense if taken on their own, let alone combined.
In fact, while Krampus has great touches throughout like an animated flashback half way through, it does suffer quite a bit from writers Michael Dougherty [who also directs], Todd Casey and Zach Shields not having really thought their premise through. For a start, the Krampus remains extremely enigmatic and even inconsistent in his actions. Some of this can be put down to the writers shrewdly leaving stuff aside for a possible sequel, which, judging by the film’s commercial success I can see being announced very soon, and which I wouldn’t entirely be against. However, the putting, say, the frustration Max has with the cousins he is forced to spend Christmas with on the same level as the cruelty itself results in questions like; Does an infant deserve to be punished because her family is mean and stupid? Trick R Treat’s Dougherty obviously likes the idea of harsh punishments being given out for not following the rules of a holiday, but in Krampus much of the goings-ons have no logic. This doesn’t entirely handicap the film, but does lead to some food for thought of the negative sort once one has come out of the cinema, while it’s telling that the most frightening Krampus you see in the film is not its ‘dark Santa’ but the disturbing images of old illustrations of the figure as the end credits begin to roll, all of which would have made for more frightening versions of the character than the one we get. Still, I do like this particular monster, and can see him becoming something of an icon; they just need to give him a bit more personality.
There are other examples of unfilled potential here and there, such as some snowmen who gather in the garden looking creepy and menacing but don’t feature in a major scene [I’d have loved to have seen these things move around], but Dougherty directs with pace if not too much style while, as I said earlier, the performances are spot on. While the film has a twisted, even cruel side, like Bad Santa it still manages to be a legitimate Christmas movie and may still bring out in some those warm holiday feelings even if overall if it offers some much needed counter programming against the usual things that make up the holiday season. Krampus is a bit muddled and contains much room for improvement, but it does mostly succeed in being what it sets out to be and is good fun overall.