Friday, 11 December 2015


I love Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat and in recent years I've become a teensy bit obsessed with the darker Christmas traditions of our European cousins. From Germany's spider in the tree, to the grotesque Yule Lads and their murderous  ogress mother Gryla of Icelandic yore, I love the mythology that has sprung up around the coldest, darkest time of the year in countries that specialise in cold and dark.
However, THE daddy of dark Christmas myths is undoubtedly Krampus, the Christmas devil. A terrible beast, Krampus is the shadowy cousin to St Nicholas in Alpine folklore. While St Nick delivers gifts to good children, Krampus is the furry, horned monster that visits naughty children, snatching them away.
This is definitely a stronger deterrent to misbehave than the chance of receiving a lump of coal on Christmas morning.
So, imagine my delight upon learning that Dougherty was returning to horror, this time taking on Nöel with a darkly humorous story about the anti-Claus.
It's surprising box office success certainly suggests that it'll provide comfort and joy to genre fans... but would it give me a Blue Christmas?
Read on...

KRAMPUS (2015)

Dir: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Krista Stadler,  Conchata Ferrell, Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

Max (Anthony) is a boy that loves Christmas. However, his family have lost the festive spirit — from overworked dad Tom (Scott); to stressed-out mum Sarah (Collette) to sarcastic teen sister Beth (Owen); they all look at the holiday season as something of a chore. This certainly isn't helped by the fact that each Christmas sees them house Sarah's put-upon sister Linda (Tolman), her gun-nut husband Howard (Koechner) and their children: surly, gluttonous Howie Jr (Flack) and tough, spiteful tomboys Stevie (Owen) and Jordan (Samuel).
When they are joined by Sarah's crabby, hard-drinking Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell), this looks like it could be the most unpleasant Christmas yet. At least Max has kindly, caring Austrian grandmother Omi (Stadler) to share his love of Yuletide. However, even she can't prevent the latest catastrophe, when the two girls snatch his letter to Santa and read it aloud at the dinner table, revealing some deeply personal feelings about everybody else present. Finally he grabs the letter, runs upstairs and, in tears, rips it to shreds before scattering the pieces out of the window.
However, this awakens a darker Christmas spirit, and as a freak blizzard blows in, knocking out the town's power, the family find themselves trapped in the house. When Beth decides to make a trip through the snow to see her boyfriend, she is the first to see a shadowy, horned figure perched on the rooftops. 
Beth may be first... but she is not the last of the family to cross paths with the diabolical Krampus, his dark elf helpers or the twisted toys he brings in his sack.
Will the family survive until Christmas morning? And can they learn to appreciate the most wonderful time of the year if they do?

THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): My favourite non-horror Christmas films are National Lampoons' Christmas Vacation and GremlinsKrampus plays out like a wonderful mix of the two.
Picture the more unsavoury members of the Griswold clan besieged by scores of malevolent beasties. 
It has a sweet message at its core, but it also has a dark vein of cynicism running through it. It both pays homage to and ruthlessly skewers the schmaltzy tropes of the likes of Miracle on 34th Street or It's A Wonderful Life.
Perhaps the most important thing, is that Krampus is very funny. The trailers play up the horror elements, but really Krampus is a very dark comedy. The sharp writing allows us to laugh both with and at the characters (even if we might recognise some of the problematic traits in the characters in ourselves and our own families). 
I don't wish to spoil the twists and turns of Todd Casey, Zach Shields and Dougherty's plot, but it takes its time with the scares, layering on atmosphere and plenty of characteristion (more specifically driving home the reasons that each of Max's family deserve the nightmarish fate that Krampus and his malevolent minions have in store for them) before hammering home it's message with an excellent ending.
This characterisation is helped by the extremely strong cast assembled: Parks and Rec vet Scott can handle put-upon comic characters in his sleep, while the bright comedy talents of the always brilliant Koechner and Ferrell make their slightly broader characters the standouts when it comes to laughs.
Everybody knows what an incredible actress Oscar-nominee Collette is, while the talented and prolific Tolman lends excellent support.
The youngsters are all great, especially the charismatic Anthony and extremely polished Owen.
However, it is the most senior member of the cast who steals most of the scenes. Austrian industry veteran Stadler is fantastic, balancing on the fine line between warmly realistic and like something from an old country fairytale. She delivers most of her dialogue in German, but that never stands as a boundary to the emotional meaning behind her lines. She brings a fantastic amount of gravitas to the film and her delivery of exposition (especially during a beautiful animated sequence midway through the film) never becomes dull or trite.
This animated sequence is just one of the visual aspects of the film that look spectacular. Feeling like an Eastern European Tim Burton flick, it is incredibly atmospheric and really captures the mood of the film.
One of the strongest parts of Trick 'r Treat was the way the film dripped with Halloween atmosphere. Krampus reiterates that Dougherty knows how to find the right cinematographer for his visions, because Jules O'Loughlin makes sure the film looks splendid.
The rich greens, reds and sparkling golds that play such a big part of the season provide a strong and striking contrast to the bleached, washed out whites of the blizzard that engulfs Max's home. The power cut that hits the house means that scenes are often lit by firelight, further heightening the campfire horror story feel of the movie. This also provides plenty of deep dark shadows to ratchet up the creepiness... and provide plenty of cover for the Krampus and his vile servants. 
And THIS brings us to arguably the biggest strength of Krampus — the fantastic creature effects. With work from a team that includes the geniuses behind the various beasties of The Lord of the Rings, Weta Workshop, plus scores of visual effects supremos, the creatures of Krampus are wonderfully realised.
The Krampus itself remains largely in shadow, hidden but always unnerving. When it is finally revealed, the face is initially a little underwhelming... until you realise what exactly you're seeing. I urge you all to look a little closer and prepare to be creeped out. 
Yet while Krampus hangs back, making only fleeting but impactful appearances, his twisted toys and helpers are nowhere near so coy. From a savage teddy bear, to a terrifying 'angel' that is best suited to topping the Manson family's tree, via a hacking, slashing toy robot, these horrific envoys all get their chance to shine. I think the best of the bunch is the seriously sinister Jack-in-the-box, a delightfully creepy cross between a porcelain clown and Poltergeist II's tequila-worm demon with the split-mouthed maws of the Reapers from Guillermo del Toro's Blade II. This particular creation is the stuff of nightmares.
What makes these creatures all the more impressive is that they were realised using good, old-fashioned practical effects.
Yes, there's CG here and there to animate certain movements that may have been impossible or to add subtle embellishments such as snake-like tongues, but for the most part they were brought to life using costumes and animatronics, which gives them a realistic quality you might not expect from beasties of this type.
Okay, the Gremlin-like wholly CG gingerbread men are decidedly less convincing but no less entertaining, while the animated Krampus bounding from rooftop to rooftop is actually pretty darn good. At the other end of the spectrum we have the low-fi dark elves, sporting creepy blank wooden masks and portrayed by graceful physical actors. These hauntingly simple monsters really do make the most of their limited screentime and I'd love to see a film which focuses more on them.

THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): First I'll address an issue I imagine will be a big problem with lots of viewers — despite the message of the film's marketing, Krampus is not a horror film. Nobody is going to be scared by this film, it's remarkably tame. Instead it feels more like the comic creature features of the late Eighties, a Critters or Ghoulies. Krampus is most definitely Trick 'r Treat's more mainstream, family-friendly cousin. If you want frights, look elsewhere.
This seems to have caused some problems with critics, with many having a hard time with the movie tonally. I get this, it's a little too dark to count as just a comedy, but nowhere near creepy enough to entertain the horror crowds.
However, I didn't have this problem, instead looking at the film as a dark fantasy with some nice creatures and lots of laughs along the way. I can appreciate a film like this and, judging by Krampus' spectacular box-office figures, there are plenty more people out there who can too.
The only real problem I had with the film was its very odd pacing. It feels a lot like it may have been snipped and reshuffled in the editing room and as such the story moves along in a rather disjointed manner. The very long characterisation and expository section of the film runs for just a little bit too long, while the climax seems rushed.
Then, to top it off, we get not one, not two, but THREE successive endings piled one on top of the other. It feels a little like test audiences didn't appreciate Dougherty and co's original ending so a little extra footage was glued onto the end.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film but just wish that five minutes could have been excised from a borderline flabby middle section and injected into the climactic hasty action sequence to give us a few more thrills. As for the ending? I personally loved it.

THE VERDICT: It may have a few minor problems, but Dougherty's Krampus is great fun and adds a delightfully dark twist to all our festive favourite films. This is an unabashed creature feature and it serves up a super selection of macabre monsters with its turkey, mince pies, tinsel and eggnog. It's a movie destined to become a Christmas cult classic with genre crowds and I can guarantee that when it receives a home release it'll become an annual tradition here at the House. Highly, highly recommended.

Krampus is showing in UK cinemas now. Check out its Facebook page here for more information.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.

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