Sean K. Cureton

Krampus, Late Capitalism, & Christmas

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on December 26, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Universal Pictures

Directed by Michael Dougherty
2 ½ out of 4 stars

The latest seasonal horror-comedy from writer-director Michael Dougherty has already been cast as a contemporary successor to Joe Dante’s Gremlins of 1984, despite its Alpine folklore elements never quiet cohering entirely with a central narrative reluctantly concerned with the spirit of its featured holiday season. In Krampus, the titular Austro-Bavarian creature of legend is summoned by a disharmonious family that is forced to spend the Christmas holiday under one roof, whose antagonistic displays towards and against one another continue to proliferate and emerge until the anti-Santa is unleashed upon them. In the opening credit sequence of Dougherty’s new film, there is a surprisingly well-orchestrated bit of comedy at play, wherein the consumerism of the holiday is expertly lampooned in a hyperbolic fashion. The tableaux in question centers around a violent outburst perpetrated at a local shopping mall, Santa meet-and-greet, as the Engel family’s eldest son Max erupts in a fit of violent rage over some inexplicable, and likely self-involved moment of environmental misjudgment, that plays out like any tantrum thrown by any child under thirteen in a public shopping center at the height of the winter holiday season. Much of the film’s lightly applied social satire develops from this early moment of comic clarity, though much of its fails to deliver on the nuance and light-hearted subtlety at play early on, and ultimately delivers on a wide range of ill-timed and excessive horror movie elements.

Which is not to say that most of the scare tactics and grisly movie monsters that Dougherty employs throughout his new film are entirely without merit, or contrived and silly on their own terms. Divorced entirely from the rest of production, many of the demonic children’s toys that populate the snowy landscape of Krampus are either minutely disturbing enough to warrant their own short films, or genuinely unsettling to behold, and make for some the film’s more effectively creepy scenes and sequences. But the sheer multitude of these miniature movie monsters often becomes too much, and their ubiquity for the first two thirds of the film makes for a less imposing final reveal when Max finally confronts the great beast that he has unwittingly unleashed upon his family by film’s end. The grotesque Jack-in-the-Box and the army of malevolent gingerbread men are effective on their own, but combined with an evil teddy bear, a satanic angel ornament, and a smattering of incoherent, malicious elves, much of the film’s horror movie elements fall flat inn juxtaposition to one another, and serve to flatten a lot of the film’s scares, while simultaneously diminishing the script’s more tender-hearted narrative intentions. If Dougherty had scaled back on the sheer assault of unnecessary, annoying, and entirely predictable jump scares and horrific surprises, he might have been able to produce a subtler film that relied more heavily on the imposing presence of its featured movie monster, and delivered a fable more in keeping with the quaint nostalgia that beats at the very heart of many of the film’s stellar performances.

In their respective roles, the actors who comprise the cast for Dougherty’s latest horror-comedy are at the top of their game respectively, and serve to ground the film in a humanistic story that is both sardonic and tragic. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are sweet and believable throughout as a couple struggling to stay together and in love, and serve to offer some kind of hope for the end of an entirely disparate film that never comes to pass. Likewise, David Koechner and Allison Tolman are diametrically endearing as the imposing relatives, and Conchata Ferrell is always a welcome presence to any broad comedy production. But there simply doesn’t appear to be anywhere for these characters to go except down, as the narrative that Dougherty’s quickly established over the course of the film’s second act is one that offers no hope or redeeming moral lesson to be learned from the horrific comedy of errors that otherwise ensues. Instead, the Engel’s are left to contemplate the error of their ways in an apparent purgatory that seems oddly misappropriated for a movie purportedly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas, and ends in one of the worst jump scares all year, save for the nearly identical one more appropriately tagged onto the end of Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3.

Joe Dante’s aforementioned horror-comedy is a better film in a every way imaginable to Dougherty’s contemporary revamp of many of the same ideas and basic dramatic structure. In Gremlins, the tiny demonic creatures who wreak near-inescapable havoc are vanquished by film’s end, and the family forced to undergo a holiday of terror are chastened and all the better for the ordeal undergone. Meanwhile, Krampus is an oppressively nihilistic version of the same story, even as it doesn’t appear to mean to be. Dougherty’s horror movie elements effectively take over what is an overtly humorous take on the scary story at the comedy production’s center, and ends up offering one of the worst holiday films imaginable, with none of the heart or understanding of many of the themes and lessons that it purports to deliver. At times, it feels as though Krampus wants to be a different film entirely, one more in keeping with much of the holistic goodness of Dante’s aforementioned cult-classic, but fails to see very far beyond the outwardly apparent bleakness of its chosen source material, and offers little more than a confused satire of late-capitalism, with a couple of scares thrown in to make sure the audience is paying attention.

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