The handcrafted creatures are the star in enjoyably dark horror-comedy 'Krampus'
Krampus Universal Pictures
Director: Michael Dougherty
Screenplay: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields
Starring: Emjay Anthony, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman, David Koechner, Stefania LaVie Owen, Conchata Ferrell and Krista Stadler
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes
December 4, 2015
(out of four)
Standing out from the crowd is certainly no guarantee of quality, but it's a pretty good start. If nothing else, Michael Dougherty's Krampus can hang its hat on that; it bears little resemblance to anything else populating movie screens, within its genre(s) or otherwise.
For one thing, I can't recall the last movie that had quite so many teeth. You could make a whole film about piranhas and vampires teaming up against Matt Dillon's character from There's Something About Mary and I'm not sure you'd see a more impressive collection of teeth than what we see on display in Krampus. Every vile little creature that shows up on screen is sporting a monstrous mouthful of them - sharp, craggy, twisted, rotten. Each one of them is more than ready for its close-up, too - so we get a good long look at every overlapping row of gnashers in every slobbery, jowly grill. It's enough to make Stan Winston and his Predators proud.
Much to my chagrin, that leaves me with a cheap segue into the question of whether the film itself - a presumptively dark-hearted horror-comedy - has teeth, and the answer is ... kinda? The whole thing works, up to a point; its ambitions are modest, but its execution is rather lovely. It's not a film that goes all the way into the heart of darkness that surrounds it, but it doesn't cop out, either. It doesn't shy away from death - yes, multiple members of this rather robust cast do not survive to the end - but it's also a PG-13 Christmas movie. How grim could it actually be? The comparisons to Gremlins are fairly apt - its creatures, even the most savage ones, are delightful, even when they're on their worst behavior - although I'd argue that movie has a lighter demeanor than this one does. I doubt Krampus will frighten many who are past adolescence, but it doesn't have to, either. Dougherty is going more for a loony, holiday funhouse than a pure horror film, and at that he succeeds.
There's a refreshing prankishness to the way he uses all these beloved totems of Christmastime - snowmen, gingerbread men, teddy bears, dolls, puppets, a Jack-in-the-Box - as nasty instruments of death, gleefully terrorizing a not-so-harmonious extended family in a not-so-warm suburban home in the days just before Christmas. They are distorted reflections of the holiday spirit, which is to say they're rather accurate representations of the way this family has been behaving and treating one another ever since they piled together for a weekend of forced family festivities. They've gathered under one roof, either out of habit or a sense of obligation, but not only do various factions of the family not seem to get along or understand each other (much less attempt to), there is outright hostility between them.
This most acutely affects 12-year-old Max (Emjay Anthony), whose faith in holiday warmth and cheer is beginning to shatter, a fact that only his grandmother, "Omi" (Krista Stadler), genuinely appreciates. (His parents, played by Adam Scott and Toni Collette, are loving, but frazzled by the chaos of the holidays; they largely write off Max's melancholy as typical adolescent surliness.) He's the only one in the house who seems to actively care about the joy of Christmas; everyone else is preoccupied, or just trying to get through it without saying something they regret. But it is the fracture of Max's holiday spirit that summons the titular Krampus and his army of cackling, evil little helpers to town.
The film is a rather winning combination of fairy-tale darkness and contemporary dramedy, and one of its main areas of strength (along with its cast, which is top-notch) is also its most surprising. Not to harp on a culture of second-rate CGI and lazy movie monsters, but the filmmakers and entire crew of Krampus have seemingly gone out of their way to create something that looks and feels handmade - something conceived, designed, built and even filmed in a way different from other similar (and similarly budgeted) movies. It's easy to imagine a version of this movie with a digital Jack-in-the-Box and digital teddy bears and a wholly digital Krampus. Instead, we get not only standout art direction (some of the best of the year) but creatures with whom the cast can interact with and react to - creatures, in other words, that are allowed to be treated as characters. That kind of physical presence does translate on screen. The effect here is not unlike the practical qualities of Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are.
The filmmaking, for the most part, does justice to those qualities. Dougherty patiently sets things in motion. Plot is kept to a minimum, which gives him the opportunity to draw out both the scenes of mayhem and the quieter sequences - the chases, the moments of anticipation. There's real elegance in the way his scenes are staged and composed - like the shot of the teenaged Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) running down a snowy road while, in the back of the frame, we see a beast hopping over rooftops across the street, keeping pace with her as she races home.
Krampus is effortlessly charming - with its character design and animatronic work, and in its earnest treatment of the central link between grandmother and grandson. Parts work so well that I wished they, and the movie as a whole, had been expanded further. Still, it's a treasure to see something as uniquely designed and crafted as this get made at all.