Tuesday 22 December 2015

Krampus | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Killjoys beware: this holiday horror surprises with positive message, tender moments.

A colleague expressed reservations about Krampus. How could I, he wondered, want to see a horror movie that ostensibly spits in the face of the Christmas holiday spirit?

As it turns out, this individual is way off the mark. Yes, Krampus is billed as a horror film. Yes, the demonic title character is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the polar opposite of Santa Claus. At first glance, Krampus seems little more than sprinkling some red and green on the typical B/slasher film in which a savvy monster gradually picks off unlikable or shallow characters.

What a pleasant surprise, therefore, when the film demolishes that expectation by morphing into a warm and, at times, touching commentary on overcoming the burdens that threaten to deflate the Christmas spirit. Krampus cautions the viewer to embrace what’s most important about the holiday season: family and hope.

Rarely does a film offer the range of experiences that Krampus does. Among the gifts it stuffs into our experiential stockings are humor, terror, sadness, triumph, anger, empathy, and appreciation. What more could one ask for?

Whether your fancy is spiked drinks and fireplaces, characters in conflict, or monsters, Krampus has something for you. Where else can you find a film in which a massive mystical creature terrifies a teenage girl, a character gets his “ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies”, and a presumed insensitive sap offers a heartfelt apology?

Krampus rivets the viewer from its humorous Black Friday opening sequence to its not bleak, though certainly not “happily ever after” conclusion.

A Problem Much Bigger Than a Feisty Squirrel
The film kicks off in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) fashion: the Engel family (parents Tom and Sarah and kids Beth and Max) welcome to their suburban home the much more eccentric brood of Sarah’s sister Linda. Standouts include patriarch Howard (played by David Koechner), a pair of sisters who’ve been raised like boys, and the hard-drinking, ultra-blunt Aunt Dorothy.

The tension starts the moment the visitors walk through the door, then carries over to an entertaining dinner scene rife with insults, embarrassment, and humour.

The film abruptly darkens when Max gives up his hope on Santa (and, to him, the spirit of the season). Forget the squirrel that troubles the Griswolds; here comes Krampus, the horned, cloven-hoofed demon!

In an artful story-within-a-story, Omi Engel, Tom’s German-speaking mother, shares the Krampus legend accompanied by what a twenty-something creative professional might call a “sick” computer-generated comic-like scene. “Krampus came not to reward,” says Omi, “but to punish. Not to give, but to take.”

Fuelled by Max’s hopelessness, Krampus and his minions spend the rest of the film terrorizing (but also bonding) the families.

Beyond Campy
What gives Krampus more depth than the typical comedy-horror is a series of tender moments that make you fall in love with the family. It happens between the adult sisters, but even more impressively between the fathers. Tom Engel’s attachment to his obviously white collar job has caused some rifts within his family. Conversely, Howard, a toned-down version of Eddie in Christmas Vacation, is a shotgun-toting Republican with no qualms about attacking Tom’s lack of manliness. When the stakes rise and force these two to put their heads together, we see some genuinely moving scenes.

Many campy horror movies present characters that viewers want to get killed. In Krampus, the feeling is different. Squabbles are put aside. Weaknesses are admitted. Sacrifices are made. Even characters portrayed as jerks begin to warm our hearts. Suddenly, you don’t want them to die.

The Chilling Side
Let’s not forget that Krampus is, above all, a horror movie. So the question is . . . does it hold its own as a horror? The answer is a resounding yes. Though the majority of the film’s horror falls into the “cute” or “humorous” categories, there are instances of oddity and outright hair-raising spectacle.

Krampus’s initial appearance stands as one of the most well-done horror action sequences this viewer has seen in the last couple of years. One character encounters him on a snowy suburban street. The screen only reveals Krampus’s hugeness and his horns, but the simultaneous fluidity and power of his movements would strike fear into the heart of anyone.

Moreover, Krampus’s minions offer a collection of scenes both funny and chilling. A few come to mind: a kind of fireplace fishing using a cookie as bait, a mysteriously growing collection of creepy-looking snowmen, bastardized elves and reindeer, and an attic scene brimming with Evil Dead-like threats.

Watch It
Krampus catches humanity on a precipice. As the holidays approach, will we embrace the spirit of the season? Or will we fall prey to the temptations of materialism and greed?

The leading monster is not totally evil, nor is he willing to give complete exemption to those seeking repentance. Krampus might be all about taking, but the one thing he surely gives is a great moviegoing experience. So . . . you better watch it. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

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