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Review: Krampus

December 24, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Krampus PosterYou better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, because if you don’t, an ancient evil spirit will come and terrorize your family over the holidays.

This is the dark premise behind Krampus, an incredibly entertaining and also surprisingly heartfelt Christmas horror comedy hybrid that expands upon German folklore to provide a delightfully twisted piece of counter cultural Yuletide entertainment.

Poor Max Engel (Emjay Anthony).  All the little boy wants is to spend Christmas with his family like they used to, without them fighting all the time.  Although his grandma (Krista Stadler) understands him, his mother (Toni Colette) and well meaning father (Adam Scott) are growing increasingly distant, and his older sister (Stefania LeVie Owen) would rather just hang out with her boyfriend.

To make matters worse for them, Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) and her loud mouthed husband Howard (David Koechner) are also staying for a visit with their three bumbling kids, along with the cranky old Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).  Losing his faith and starting to question his belief in Santa Claus, Max tearfully rips up his letter to the North Pole, accidentally summoning the demonic Krampus, who arrives like a dark cousin to St. Nicholas, with a whole sleigh full of terrifying creatures in tow.

Right from the beginning, a brilliantly orchestrated slow motion fight in a department store set to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” Krampus sets up a tone that is both subversive and strangely playful in its dark depiction of seasonal traditions.  The whole first act, when we get introduced to all of the characters forced to spend the holidays together under the same roof, plays like a dysfunctional family comedy in the same vein as the John Hughes classics Christmas Vacation and Home Alone.

But then the power cuts out, a mysterious blizzard erupts, and things start to get really dark, both figuratively and literally.  Their house is attacked by everything from killer toys to demented gingerbread cookies and creepy elves, as they start getting picked off one by one, in order to teach them all a valuable lesson about appreciating the true reason for the season.  The film works because of how well it pulls of this tonal switch.  Mainly utilizing practical effects, there is a visceral quality to the visuals and jump scares, with a lot of truly freaky images on display as everything goes to hell in a hand basket.  The darkly beautiful production design also makes great use of the snowy winter backdrops.

There are many memorable and suitably disturbing set pieces here, and because of this, Krampus will hold up well to annual viewings.  An animated flashback provides one of the most haunting sequences, fleshing out the backstory in a surprisingly resonant way, and the ending is also pretty damn great, taking the story into an almost metaphysical realm, that could be interpreted several different ways.  The music by Douglas Pipes is an excellent mix of atmospheric orchestral work and classic holiday tunes, using pieces like “Carol of the Bells” to further up the tension in some really memorable ways.

Director Michael Dougherty, who gave Halloween his own special treatment in Trick ‘R Treat, clearly harbours great affection for the many holiday stories that have came before, even if he has a unique way of showing it.  This is a story about a dark spirit terrifying a family into learning how to be grateful for what they have, and in its own way the film has undertones of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, exploring themes of second chances, self-sacrifice and comeuppance for the greedy.

As a big fan of the classic holiday creature feature Gremlins, which provides the clear inspiration for Krampus, I found a lot to like here.  Providing ample scares, along with moments of humour and some genuinely heartfelt themes, Krampus is a Christmas film for those who want something gleefully dark and decidedly different as part of their holiday traditions.  Merry Christmas, everybody!

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