Thursday, December 24, 2015

'Krampus' review

We don't get a lot of holiday horror movies. It's an incredibly niche genre, and frankly, I think there's a general sense among Hollywood that audiences don't want to see anything dark or scary around Christmas. That's why Krampus is an abnormality- it's the most darkly funny and thrillingly despairing Christmas movie in recent memory. Not without its share of missteps, Krampus hits a lot of familiar beats in a new package. But man, that package is quite a bit of fun. Led by the pairing of Adam Scott and David Koechner, Krampus makes for a breezily enjoyable 98 minutes that works as a unique mix of Christmas Vacation, Gremlins and a monster movie. Never too scary or too goofy, Krampus strikes a good tone that will make for a pleasant escape for anyone looking for their holiday entertainment to have a tinge of viciousness to it.

It's the holiday season and the fun has just begun. As Krampus opens, Bing Crosby croons "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" as shoppers trample, bite, shove, punch, kick, attack, stomp and fight their way through the department stores looking for the perfect gift for their loved ones. This is a great way to open the movie. Director Michael Dougherty doesn't assume anything about the audience- he figures that they simply don't know what to expect from a movie about an evil demon who punishes bad families on Christmas. Krampus is full of surprises and the opening scene makes for a good early surprise. The music is instantly familiar, but the scene takes a turn quickly and gets crazy fast. The scene works as a metaphor for the entire movie. On the surface, Krampus seems tired and cliched, but it always takes you in bizarre directions.

For the rest of the film, we follow the Engel family as they embark on the worst Christmas ever. Tom (Adam Scott) is the regular workaholic, who has become slightly estranged from his wife, Sarah (Toni Collette), as he builds his career. They live in a posh house with Tom's mother (Krista Stadler) and their two children, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Chef's Emjay Anthony). The eternal optimist of the group, Max defends Santa Claus to the bitter end, and has occasionally become violent while protecting the image of the jolly old elf. Everything is going swimmingly until the family shows up. Similar to Randy Quaid's Uncle Eddie and his crew of crazies in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Fargo's Alison Tolman), along with their terrible children, arrive to create Christmas mayhem. All of the trouble makes Max give up on Santa- a mistake he will later come to regret. Thanks to the loss of Christmas spirit, Saint Nicholas' shadow, Krampus, is unleashed upon the Engel clan, creating a nonstop array of madness that will either consume the family or bring them closer together.

I should emphasize that I don't think Krampus deserves the label of horror film. This is not a horror film. There were very few moments in the film where I found myself scared, frightened or even remotely concerned for the safety of the characters. Instead, I would describe the film as deliciously depraved, almost relentlessly dark to the point where it's funny. It's almost as if Dougherty and the cast are toying around with your expectations, playing off what you think will happen and twisting it to create something fresh. Krampus isn't needlessly violent or intense- after all, this is a movie with a freakin' killer gingerbread man. But there's something hauntingly nefarious at its core, an exaggerated parable about the loss of Christmas spirit and innocence. It's a nonstop blast of fun, but there were quite a few moments where I said to myself "Wow, this is really dark."

Let's get this out of the way too- Krampus is not a great film, or maybe even a good film by any standard definition of the word. It moves in spurts, follows a few too many Christmas movie cliches and feels a tad bit lengthy even with its short runtime. There were moments during Krampus where I grew impatient and where I didn't feel like the movie was working. Thankfully, the film ends up coming together nicely with a phenomenal third act, mostly because of something truly intangible. The spirit of Christmas and of holiday cinema surrounds Krampus, and even with its imperfections, there's an instant likability to the film that makes it go down very smoothly. From the music to the visuals to the wintry landscape that is pervasive throughout, this is a film that made me feel the Christmas spirit, even though there were multiple murders by candy cane.

The cast certainly helps. Adam Scott has succeeded in playing a wide variety of likable and despicable characters in the past, and he adds a bit of both to Tom Engel (he's ultimately a good guy). Scott's performance has quite a few layers and I felt that his emotional arc was the core of the movie. David Koechner has some hysterical moments as the boorish Uncle Howard, but the character parallels some classic cinematic performances just a bit too closely. Collette and Tolman have little to do, but manage to be consistently solid, giving the film its needed amounts of gravitas. For me, Emjay Anthony steals this movie. He was great in last year's Chef, and he continues to grow as an actor here. Watch out for this kid. He's going to be a star someday.

And while I have emphasized the fact that this isn't a horror movie, there are some truly wonderful monster effects used by Dougherty and his crew in this film. I love how he shields Krampus from us until very late in the game, giving some true suspense to how the character is revealed. In addition, the mix of practical and digital effects gives the film a unique balance that works in its favor. There's so much atmosphere in this film and I love the way that Dougherty created the world that Krampus inhabits. His script with co-writer Todd Casey needs some work, but I cannot fault the directorial job that he did here. He strikes a near-perfect tone, and has created a film that is sweet, funny, charming, and more than a bit sinister.

That's Krampus for ya. It's not a masterpiece. If you're looking for one of those, hop down to the auditorium that's playing Spotlight or Creed or Star Wars. Krampus is a terrific B-movie, a well-acted, sumptuously designed and almost constantly enjoyable Christmas thriller that will satisfy anybody who has a vague idea of what they're getting into. The material is warped in the best way possible and magnified by the Christmas setting, which allows for Dougherty to create a new holiday favorite. I know that I'll be returning to it in future years. It's that much vile, silly fun.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Image Credits: The Guardian, Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Joblo

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