Tuesday, December 8, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Krampus

Krampus was written by Todd Casey, Zach Shields and Michael Dougherty, and was also directed by Michael Dougherty.

Todd Casey previously wrote a slew of episodes for various cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Dougherty wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for X-Men 2, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, Superman Returns and Trick 'r Treat (which he also directed).

For the few people out there who haven't heard of him, Krampus originated in Austria and Germany and is a horned, demonic figure who appears at Christmastime to punish children who've been bad. Krampus is usually depicted as a hairy figure with a devilish face, large goat-like horns and cloven hooves. He often carries a whip that he uses to punish children, and sometimes carries chains which he uses to capture bad children and drag them back to the underworld.

The film is sort of a cross between National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and Gremlins. It has a subversive and cynical flavor, mixed with supernatural characters and over the top violence. Unfortunately Krampus seems to have trouble settling on a tone. It starts out as a dark comedy, but sadly there's nothing particularly funny about it. It desperately wants to be scary, but any horror it might have generated is undercut by the goofy and whimsical look of the monsters. One minute the characters are being menaced by unseen creatures under the snow, the next they're fending off animated gingerbread men. It's very jarring.


In fact these lackluster creatures are the movie's downfall. None of them are particularly interesting-looking or the least bit frightening. It's tough for me to be scared of a teddy bear, even one with realistic bloody fangs. The cutesy gingerbread men in particular seemed like a misstep to me, as if they wandered in from a completely different movie.

Krampus himself, who's obviously the main attraction here, is particularly disappointing. When you're making a movie called Krampus, then the design of your Christmas demon damn well better deliver. Most people have a general idea of what Krampus looks like, but this one goes in a completely different direction, inexplicably hiding his goat-like face behind a hilariously slack-jawed Santa mask. The director seems to realize his titular monster's a total failure, as he keeps it offscreen as much as possible. In fact it's not until the very end that he finally reveals his Krampus design, and even then it's kept hidden in shadow.

The movie features many practical effects, which is always a good thing. There were a few CGI creations of course (such as the aforementioned gingerbread men) but for the most part the monsters were all realized with elaborate suits. It's just too bad the designs weren't more interesting.

Lastly, this is definitely not a family film. It's very dark and unsettling, and many of the characters— including kids— actually die in it. If you bring a child under ten to see this movie, expect them to wet themselves where they sit.

I'm honestly wondering how this film ever got greenlighted. Especially in our current politically correct excuse for a society, when everything has to be sanitized for everyone's protection, lest someone become offended. It's rare to see a film like this anymore. I have a feeling this movie's going to tank at the box office, as it's too scary for kids and not gruesome enough for horror fans.


SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Young Max (no last names, please) writes a letter to Santa, asking only for his family— including his dad Tom (played by Adam Scott), mom Sarah, older sister Beth and Grandma Omi— to get along during the holiday. Unfortunately that seems unlikely, as Tom is concentrating on work, Sarah's stressed out by the holidays, Beth doesn't want anything to do with her family and poor Omi is ignored.

Max's hopes for a fun family get-together are crushed for good when his unruly Uncle Howard (played by David Koechner), Aunt Linda and cousins Stevie, Jordan, Howie Jr. and their infant daughter show up a day or two before Christmas, complete with Great Aunt Dorothy in tow. Tensions run high during dinner, and culminate when Max's tomboy cousins Stevie and Jordan steal his letter to Santa and read his honest and heartfelt sentiments out loud. Max shrieks that he hates his family and runs to his room. He then tears up his letter to Santa and tosses the pieces out his window, where they fly high into the night sky. Uh-oh!

Right on cue, a huge blizzard appears out of nowhere, knocking out the power and isolating Max's street from the rest of the world. The next day Max notices sinister looking snowmen in his backyard, and wonders who built them. Beth can't get any cell phone reception, so she walks to her boyfriend's house a few blocks away. As she hikes down the deserted street, she sees a horned figure jumping from roof to roof. She hides under an abandoned van and watches as the terrifying creature passes by, dropping a jack-in-the-box in the snow. A creature crawls out of it and seemingly kills her. Well, that was unexpected!

Later that day Tom and Sarah worry about the missing Beth. Tom and Howard go out to search for her. They see no signs of life anywhere in the neighborhood, which unnerves them. They find the abandoned van, but there's no sign of Beth. They see her boyfriend's house has been destroyed, and Howard spots goat-like prints in the snow. As they make their way back to the Howard's Hummer, he's attacked by an unseen creature that pulls him under the snow. Tom shoots at the creature and saves Howard. They see the Hummer has also been destroyed, and limp back to Tom's house.

Tom quickly boards up the doors and windows, telling Sarah they'll have to look for Beth in the morning. Omi, who's been tending the fireplace since the power failed, tells them not to let the fire go out.

That night as the entire family sleeps in the living room, the fire goes out. A gingerbread cookie on a large hook descends out of the fireplace. The portly Howard Jr. sees it and grabs it. The chain suddenly comes to life, wraps around him and drags him up the chimney, as the family panics.

Omi tells them they're being attacked by Krampus. As a young girl, she lived in Austria at the end of WWII. Due to her family's poverty and her parent's constant bickering, she lost her Christmas spirit. This summoned Krampus, who captured her parents and dragged them off to the underworld (seems a bit harsh, but what do I know). Krampus spared her for some reason, and left her an iron ornament as a reminder of what happens when one forgets the meaning of Christmas. Max then worries that his outburst and the shredding of his letter inadvertently conjured up Krampus in his own home.

As Tom plans an escape, all hell breaks loose in the house. Stevie and Jordan are lured into the attic by an eerie voice. Tom, Sarah and Linda run to the attic to save them, and are attacked by grotesque, evil toys. Meanwhile Howard is attacked by a trio of gingerbread men, armed with Tom's nail gun (!). The adults manage to save Stevie and bring her downstairs, but just then a horde of dark elves burst into the house. They carry off Aunt Dorothy, the baby and Howard. Omi tells the others to run, and stays behind as a distraction. Krampus appears and she faces the demon for the second time in her life. He stuffs her into the sack on his back.

The rest of the family runs down the street, trying to reach a stalled snowplow. Tom scarifies himself to give the others a chance. Linda and Sarah are then taken as well. Max and Stevie make it to the snowplow, but it won't start. The dark elves take Stevie, leaving Max the sole survivor. Krampus then appears before Max. He gives him an iron ornament, just like the one he gave to young Omi. He also gives him his shredded letter to Santa and then leaves.

Max follows Krampus, begging him to return things to normal. A giant pit opens in the middle of the street, leading into the underworld far below. Max throws the ornament at Krampus, who laughs. He grabs Max and dangles him over the pit, and then drops him in.

Max wakes up in his bed on Christmas morning. He rushes to the window and sees the neighborhood has returned to normal. He runs downstairs and hugs his parents, confident the whole thing was a bad dream and he'll finally have a great holiday. He opens a present and finds the iron ornament that Krampus gave him inside. The entire family looks shocked, as their memories of the past few days return. The camera pans out to reveal Max's house inside a snow globe sitting on a shelf (along with thousands of others) in Krampus' workshop. Um... the end?

Thoughts:
• The opening credits are perfect, as It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas is played over scenes of savage Black Friday shoppers trying to kill one another as they scramble for gifts.

• All through the movie Tom calls Omi "Mom," but she seems awfully old to have a son his age. According to her story she was a little girl during WWII, which was seventy some years ago. That would make Omi somewhere in her eighties. Tom looks to be around thirty five. Did Omi really have him when she was in her late forties? It's possible, but it would have been better if she was his grandma.

• Why is Tom constantly sweating all through the movie? Especially when he's outside in the aftermath of the blizzard? Does he sweat when he's stressed no matter what the temperature is?

• The internet loves to point out that actor Sean Bean dies in virtually every film he's in. But there may be a new contender for his crown. David Koechner has died in numerous movies as well. He "died" in this movie (although he got better at the end), and he also died in Snakes On A Plane, Final Destination 5, Piranha 3DD and Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse. And that's just on the top of my head. He's probably died more than that.

• For some reason Krampus movies have become all the rage the past couple of years, especially in the Direct-To-DVD market. I guess Krampus is the new Zombies. 

Unfortunately every one of the Krampus designs seen above is far superior to the one in this film.

• I'm betting the majority of the general public has at least heard of Krampus, but few could explain who or what he really is. Is he a demon? Half goat, half man? Santa's evil twin? How does he appear? What's he do once he's arrived?

Omi more or less explains the Krampus legend to her family (and the audience), but she doesn't do so until two thirds of the way into the film. Wouldn't it have made more sense if she'd have sat Max down and laid out the ground rules at the beginning of the film?

• When Omi finally explains the Krampus legend, her flashback is filmed in stop motion. It was an interesting sequence and looked cool, but it was a bit jarring to see it pop up in the middle of a live action movie. Do all of Omi's memories look like Rankin-Bass specials?

• When the gingerbread men attack Howard, they shoot a nail gun at him. Sigh. Real nail guns do not work that way. They're not handguns that shoots nails instead of bullets.

They only work when the front end is pressed against a board. Even then, the nails don't exit the gun at 100 mph. If they did they'd go right through the board you're trying to nail!

• All the action scenes in the movie were all filmed in the patented Shakey Cam® style. During most of the battle scenes I couldn't tell what the hell was going on, as the director shoved the camera right into the actors' faces and shook it as hard as he could while throwing evil toys at them.

Either Michael Dougherty can't direct an action scene to save his life, or he once again realized his creature designs were lacking and did his best to obscure them.

• At the end of the film, the whole family's intact again, including Omi. Wouldn't it have made sense if she'd have been the only one to actually die? That certainly where I thought the film was heading. She lost her family to Krampus as punishment for losing her Christmas spirit. It would have been a nice little bookend to her story if she faced Krampus again at the end of her life, to save Max and his family and balance the scales.

• The movie has a vague ending that's open to interpretation. My least favorite kind! At the end of the film we see Max's house is inside a snow globe in Krampus' lair. So is the family trapped inside the globe, forced to relive Christmas day forever (dear god no!)? Or is the snow globe some kind of CCTV device, so Krampus can keep an eye on them, making sure they don't lose their Christmas spirit again? Who knows? I guess it's up to the audience to decide.

Krampus had the potential to be a twisted Christmas classic, but it's torpedoed by a muddled screenplay, vague and incomprehensible action scenes and lackluster character designs. Do yourself a favor and watch Gremlins again instead. I give it a B-.

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