Cinema Dispatch: Krampus

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Krampus and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Michael Dougherty

There really hasn’t been a good Christmas horror movie since Gremlins, has there?  I’ve heard good things about Rare Exports, but that didn’t even get a decent sized theater release here in the US.  That’s all about to change… maybe, with this horror film about the holiday season’s canonical version of The Grinch!  It certainly has an uphill battle considering how hard it is to walk that line between scary and being hilarious (intentionally anyway) but there’s some strong talent behind this film so there’s a good chance they can actually pull it off!  Will this movie manage to be a fun horror comedy that becomes a holiday staple, or is this a giant piece of cinematic coal that we’re being punished with for giving War Room so much money?  Let’s find out!!

The movie is about a family who gets together on Christmas despite the fact that no one likes anyone.  You’ve got Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) who are the parents of Beth and Max (Stefania LaVie Owen and Emjay Anthony) and they’re playing host to Toni’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her husband Howard (David Koechner), and their three kids Stevie, Jordan, and Howie Jr (Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, and Maverick Flack).  Oh, and there’s a baby in there somewhere along with bitter sardonic Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).  Wait, am I forgetting anyone?  THAT’S RIGHT!!  Tom’s mother Omi (Krista Sadler) who will play Miss Exposition here as she knows ALL about Krampus yet doesn’t tell the family until well after the shit has hit the fan.  Anyway, as you’d expect around the holidays, tensions flare up and there’s a huge fight that causes young Max to finally give up on the Christmas spirit.  This decision makes completely responsible for what happens next and the deaths of whichever loved ones get caught in the crossfire.  A huge storm rolls in that cuts off this neighborhood from the rest of the world and takes out the power and cell phone towers.  There’s something else out there though and the family soon finds themselves besieged by Gremlins knock offs, snow monsters, and a really fucked up Jack in the Box before Krampus finally shows up to deal with this family himself.  Can they survived Yuletide massacre long enough to open their presents?  Will Max be forever haunted by the fact that his sadness (which is something that’s REALLY outside of his control) is the root cause of all this horrifying shit being rained upon them?  Is it at least as good as Santa’s Slay!?

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Even if it is, that’s some serious damning with faint praise.

This movie was a huge disappointment.  Now I wasn’t expecting something spectacular or even a movie that’s all that scary, but even for what it was TRYING to be, this fell surprisingly short.  With a film that’s premise is this intentionally absurd, there’s not a whole lot of directions it can go besides comedy.  I mean, you could TRY to make this serious and horrifying, but that would be an INSANELY difficult uphill battle and I don’t begrudge this movie for not even trying to go that way.  What I WILL begrudge the movie for doing is going the EASY route when it came to the comedy by just infusing cynicism into everything.  The movie sets its tone RIGHT OFF THE BAT with the first five minutes being a montage of people acting like shit bags on Black Friday (trampling employees, wrestling over items, children crying).  It’s all completely unnecessary and above all NOT FUNNY.  They’re no jokes in this scene, just a premise.  A bunch of people are shopping on Black Friday and it’s a total madhouse.  Okay… so what happens there?  Are our main characters even in this scene?  No, it’s just shots of people being mean and angry which I guess is supposed to be it.  Even if it’s supposed to be commentary on the way that Christmas has turned into a consumeristic nightmare, it’s hardly done with any creativity or insight.

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Wait, Christmas is now too commercialized?  Wow movie!  I’ve NEVER heard that before!!  Please!  Tell us more about this fantastic hypothesis you’ve come up with!

The movie doesn’t stay THAT cynical throughout, but it also never really manages to be outright goofball fun, or evoke a real sense of wonder and joy that we get from the really good holiday films.  It just kind of falls somewhere in the middle which I guess is better than being hateful or mean spirited, but it’s also lacking any real bite or punch which could have justified a darker or more cynical tone.  It’s just ugliness tempered by generic family pabulum and lame jokes.  The family itself is filled to the brim with caricatures and unfunny stereotypes (why do fat kids ALWAYS have to have those fucking dead eye expressions in crap like this!?) which I guess is so that we hate them and can enjoy watching them get killed, but then the movie starts to backpedal halfway through and tries to make this about the importance of family, but it never feels earned and the characters don’t have much of an arc.  Hell, one of the only characters I actually liked in this (despite giving her some of the weakest and overused teenage girl clichés) is the first one to disappear from the movie, so when the movie tries to get us to come around to these characters, I had long since given up hope on liking pretty much any of them.  Even when shit hits the fan and they get serious, it doesn’t sell.  There are some deaths in this movie that you’d think would have a bit more impact, but the characters only seem mildly distraught which only made it harder for me to care what happens to anyone.

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“Need a bit of holiday cheer right about now.  In fact, I’ll make it a double…”

So the movie never really comes together on a thematic and emotional level despite it trying to more than a lot of over the top horror flicks.  Does it at least work in terms of the horror elements?  Not really.  For about ten minutes, this movie goes full on Evil Dead and is firing on all cylinders, but unfortunately that’s the only time the premise actually works.  The explanation for Krampus attacking this family is uninspired to the point that you lose all investment on the outcome of the story.  Krampus comes to town because no one in the family is happy this Christmas.  That’s it.  The young boy was the last holdout, but even he got sad and therefore brought Armageddon to their doorstep.  They didn’t steal a magic MacGuffin or blood sacrifice; just… sadness.  I mean if Krampus can just come to your door stop just because you’re feeling blue, then his attack here is meaningless and it just raises more questions.  There are PLENTY of families in the world who hate Christmas time and trudge through the season which means he has to be pretty damn busy every freaking year.  How is it that no one knows about The Krampus being real if the minimum requirements to incur his wrath are so low?  It’s not even like he’s a subtle murder too.  He’s fucking shit up and leaving a pretty big mess.  It just ends up begging the question as to what makes THIS story worth telling over ANYONE ELSE getting killed by Krampus.  There’s an old screen rule that I’m about to butcher that basically goes “If this isn’t the most exciting event in your characters’ lives, why aren’t we hearing about that story instead”.  You could argue that Krampus choosing THIS family to attack would definitely be the most exciting thing to happen to them, whether or not this is happening to other people.  Fair enough, but I think that rule also has to apply to our antagonist as well and frankly his attack feels so distant and rote that it comes off more like watching someone go through their day job.

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“Please sign these forms confirming that we have ruined your lives an effectively and taught you a lesson about the spirit of Christmas.  If you’d like to take a survey, there’s one on page six and doing so will give you a 4% rebate the next time we visit.”     “Does that mean I’ll get to keep someone’s finger or something?”

Without spoiling too much, I will say that it’s not like this particular attack goes HORRIBLY WRONG for the guy which is what can usually justify a character who does this on a regular basis being the principal antagonist.  Freddy dies at the end of every Nightmare movie which gives his role in the story some actual meaning.  Here?  It’s more akin to a natural disaster and if you’re going to go THAT route (make the antagonist more of an overwhelming force rather than a character), you need to step up your game in either the scope or the characters to compensate.  Evil Dead is the perfect example of this in terms of horror films where the threat is ambiguous yet Bruce Campbell’s performance and the creative special effects carry it to the end.  Here?  They MIGHT have a bit of the scope with some interesting looking bad guys and plenty of destruction, but as we’ve already established, the characters suck so you don’t really care what happens to them.

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“I’m sure these dolls are very popular on… whatever planet the Predators are from.  Preda-topia?”

Even if you’re only in this for the gore, you’ll be disappointed.  Not a drop of blood is spilled during any of the kills and quite a few of them are done off screen.  There are some cool elements here like the creepy clown thingy with the horror mouth, but since the movie does such a poor job establishing the lore, these elements don’t really come together as any sort of cohesive whole, especially the elves which just seem to be extras from Pan wearing updated versions of the Troll 2 costumes.

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“I knew I should have taken that left turn at Nilbog!”

So is there anything good here?  As much as I didn’t like the characters, I though the actors did fine.  I still have hopes that Toni Collette will be able to do something at least half as good as United States of Tara again, and while this isn’t it, she at least does a good job with the role.  Adam Scott and David Koechner have a pretty cliché odd couple thing going on, but despite the corniness of the material, they manage to make it work.  Conchata Ferrell as Aunt Dorothy gets it pretty damn bad in terms of characterization, being a walking embodiment of the movie’s brain dead cynical wit, but she does have her moments and is one of the more memorable aspects of the movie.  The designs are nice if completely wasted here because there’s only one scene where I think they’re used effectively.  They’re used VERY effectively, but that scene is so far into the movie and then they just disappear from the movie entirely.  It ALMOST ends strongly, with some heartfelt moments and Max having to step up to the plate (the closest the movie does come to an adventure film), but the double cop out at the end just kind of ruins it.

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So what can learn from all this?  At least for me, I prefer to see spoofs that have a clear appreciation for whatever it is they’re trying to satirize, and this movie couldn’t have come out at worse time considering we got such a perfect example of that with Victor Frankenstein a week earlier.  Whatever affection they show for the holiday season feels token at best and the cynicism is just too obvious to be enjoyable.  I honestly think this movie should have been more like Jumanji or Attack the Block where bad things are happening, yet there’s a sense of adventure that makes it fun and scary at the same time.  While there are moments here where it approaches that, it just doesn’t seem to WANT to have fun with this outside of how many anachronistic ways can we show bad things happening to people.  This is extremely disheartening considering that the director’s last movie was the spectacular Trick ‘r Treat which sincerely did have that appreciation for the holiday in which it was satirizing that this movie is so sorely lacking.  Maybe the juxtaposition of holiday iconography with horror clichés will work for others and maybe the humor will be right up everyone else’s alley.  Neither one of them really did it for me, so the movie just became an uninteresting slog that I kept hoping would get better.  It never really does and it’s only worth watching in very small pieces.  This is not the time of year to be bother with mediocre fair like this, so go out and see any of the really good movies we’ve gotten this month and just skip this one.  Maybe check it once it gets a home release if you’re still inclined to see what it’s all about, but you’re more than likely going to be disappointed to find this wrapped up under your Christmas tree.  Granted, it’ll probably come out in April or something, but the point still stands!

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If you like this review and plan on buying the movie, then use the Amazon link below!  I’ll get a percentage of the order it helps keep things going for me here at The Reviewers Unite!  In fact, you don’t even need to buy the item listed!  Just use the link, shop normally, and when you check out it will still give us that sweet, sweet, percentage!  You can even bookmark the link and use it every time you shop!  HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?

Krampus (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)

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