Krampus (2015)

*. I’ll admit I’d never heard of Krampus before this movie came out. I just figured he was something writer-director Michael Dougherty made up. But no. He’s real. Or “real.” Live and learn.
*. If you listen to the DVD commentary (with Dougherty, and co-writers/producers Todd Casey and Zach Shields) one word you’ll hear them using over and over is “tone.” This was a major issue right from the start, and it bedeviled them through post-production and into the film’s marketing. Just what sort of tone were they going for?
*. I’m not trying to pigeonhole Krampus, or accuse it of not being able to make up its mind about being a horror movie or something else. Tone is a little different. It’s good to play around with genres and the expectations that come with them. Mixing tone rarely goes well so you want to find the right tone and stick with it. If you don’t, it’s like mixing different architectural styles in the same building. It may work, but it’s more likely to be a mess.
*. And so here’s Krampus, which is a mix of a lot of different things. First and foremost it’s a horror movie. But a particular kind of horror movie, one (in Dougherty’s words) “done in hte style and spirit of ’80s horror movies.” And, to further qualify this, a particular kind of ’80s horror movie: PG-13 horror like Poltergeist and Gremlins (the two films Dougherty references the most). This isn’t an homage to slasher flicks.
*. Certainly the Joe Dante vibe is unmistakeable. And I say that not because Krampus’s crew act like a bunch of Gremlins that have been unleashed but because the snowy streets of these ‘burbs are even more obviously sets than the back lot used in Gremlins.
*. Speaking of which, nearly the entire movie was shot in a studio. In New Zealand. This confused me, because I don’t know why you’d go to New Zealand to shoot in a studio unless it was very cheap, which I wouldn’t have thought it was. But apparently a big draw was getting to work with Peter Jackson’s crew and some of the effects teams they have there. Jackson’s been quite a boon to the local economy.

*. The other type of movie Krampus invokes is the holiday-from-hell. Think of something like Christmas Vacation, another blast from the ’80s. The doorbell rings and here come the in-laws, headed by the always enjoyable and louder-than-life David Koechner as the gun-toting blowhard, accompanied this time by some heavyweight kids and a drunken aunt. You know the script, as you’ve probably seen the movie several times. The hostess labours over crème brûlée in the kitchen, but all these savages want is their mac-and-cheese and hot dogs.
*. Finally, Krampus is a specific type of holiday movie in being about Christmas. The nods here are to films like A Christmas Carol and the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation specials. These holiday tales usually ended up with some feel-good moral lesson, like a family coming together and learning the true meaning of the spirit of Christmas.
*. So those are the ingredients. Do they all come together? Not really. Dougherty thought it a “family horror film,” which he says is “a rarity these days.” I’d be inclined to call it an oxymoron. In any event, the first part here is all the holiday-from-hell stuff, which is followed by the Gremlins stuff without much overlap. They’re kept pretty distinct.
*. More than that, however, I didn’t think the separate parts worked that well on their own. We begin with a Christmas-shopping free-for-all that is both clichéd and disconnected from everything that comes next. That might have been taken as setting the tone. The holiday stuff that follows was good but not great, while Krampus, when he shows up, was pretty disappointing. The horror film isn’t scary, and not terribly interesting either. Given that I quite liked Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat this was even more of a let-down.
*. I get that Krampus is meant to be a kind of trickster spirit, but very little personality comes out. And his appearance leaves a lot to be desired. I realize he’s wearing a mask, making him look like the ghost mask in the Scream movies, but it’s not a great mask and I didn’t really understand why he was wearing one anyway.

*. The ending confused people. I think it was meant to be ambiguous. My own sense was that it signified that the family were now locked in hell for eternity. I mean, we do see them all go falling into the pit, and they certainly don’t seem very happy when they realize the Krampus visitation was real. But you could, in the alternative, see it as Krampus just keeping an eye on them by way of a sort of crystal ball in his workshop. That works, but it seems like a stretch to me. And they did also shoot an alternate, more optimistic ending (included with the DVD) but rejected it.
*. Of course, such a dark ending was the final twist in tone. Audiences do like their happy endings, especially when they’re what’s expected. I honestly thought the real Santa Claus was going to come crashing the party at the end and righteously smite Krampus and his minions. I’m glad that didn’t happen.
*. This probably makes it seem like I didn’t like Krampus. Actually, I thought it was OK. But just OK, and I was expecting something more. I think this is the movie Dougherty really wanted to make, but that might have been the problem. Poltergeist and Gremlins, for all their name recognition, weren’t great movies. Nor was Christmas Vacation. It may be that Krampus goes on to have a similar afterlife, complete with sequels. One thing’s for sure, in the family-horror genre they won’t have much competition.

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