Tuesday, December 8, 2015

December to Dismember: KRAMPUS (2015)

Joy to the world, the Krampus has come! Well, sort of.

Back in 2007, Michael Dougherty's Halloween anthology movie TRICK 'R TREAT quietly slipped in under the radar and became something of a cult favorite - and I am using the term "cult" as it was intended, not as a substitution for the word "exploitation". Dougherty's enthusiasm for the genre was tempered with solid performances and a clever script mechanic that has a set of the anthology stories and a wrap-around that are interwoven, instead of being isolated into separate sections and at separate times. Things happen that seem like non-sequiturs, and later you find out how they tie into the story. It was gory, darkly humorous, well acted and unpretentious. It feels like the movie that Anthony Hickox's WAXWORK (1988) should have been.

Aside from a couple of mediocre graphic novel tie-ins with both TRICK 'R TREAT and KRAMPUS, many reports of the off again, on again sequel TRICK 'R TREAT 2, Dogherty has done a whole lot of nothing for the past 7 years (does a FEARnet short count?), but finally returns with a Krampus movie! Well, sort of.

Playing out like a mash-up of GREMLINS (1984), INVADERS FROM MARS (1986), CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) and a big budget version of DEMONIC TOYS (1992), the story is this time told in a linear fashion (much to Shane Bitterling's relief). An upper-middle class level-headed, loving family (I was going to say "normal", but realized that was a contradiction) in which 12 year old Max (Emjay Anthony) still believes in Santa. With only a couple more days until Christmas, he hurriedly scribbles off a letter to Santa, but doesn't get a chance to mail it before his trailer-trash relatives descend on his house bringing with them a whole mess of passive and overt aggression.

At dinner one of Uncle Howard's (David Koechner) daughters taunts Max by stealing and reading his letter to Santa causing a fight to break out at the dinner table. So upset by this and the rest of the family bullshit, Max rips up his letter and throws it out into the night. No sooner than the wind whips away the bits of paper, than a blizzard hits town killing the electricity, gas and phone service. After his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) fails to return after attempting to go see her boyfriend down the block, the miss-matched family members begin to realize that something is seriously wrong. Something that alcohol can't fix.

While Max's unbelievably sweet German omi (Krista Stadler) seems preoccupied, perhaps even a little obsessed with tending the fire, we find out that she has been harboring a dark Christmas secret for these many years. When she was a child, Christmas became so awful that she gave up hope of being happy and threw her Santa doll on to the fire wishing that her parents would disappear. That night a blizzard hit the town and a massive, horned devil wearing chains and bells came and took her parents away. Shortly after divulging the details of her secret, evil elves and toys descend on the house picking people off one by one.

As much as KRAMPUS is not the follow-up to TRICK 'R TREAT that people were hoping for from Dougherty, it is a solidly played and slickly executed little film. Koechner plays his patented bombastic asshole and even the kids nail their parts. The thing that really hurts the film for someone who enjoyed TRICK 'R TREAT is that it is feels like a Spielburg production that went missing in the '80s. On the one hand this is a good thing because the film is played completely straight and the bits of humor that are in the film come from the characters and situations and not the filmmakers winking and pointing out that they are making a stupid movie and don't take it seriously. It also doesn't flop to the opposite end of the spectrum and play out with exaggerated emotions and over-long sequences dwelling on people crying in anguish (what I like to call "crying porn"). It also is not over-produced. The CGI is used appropriately with only one obviously computer generated sequence. These things, without question, put this movie heads above the usual horror fodder that hits multiplex screens these days.

Unfortunately, after enjoyably setting the stage, the film fumbles the horror element. The PG-13 rating is probably the softest PG-13 film in recent years. If this had been released with a PG rating in the early to mid '80s, it would have been a relatively soft PG. If you are expecting the dark, bloody antics of TRICK 'R TREAT you will not be with KRAMPUS. The horror elements are not scary to an adult, but to an 8 year-old audience, it's probably right on target, which is fine because this is definitely aiming for "dark family movie" territory much like GREMLINS did.

Annoyingly the title character is barely even in the movie. You get quick glimpses of him through-out the film, but it is his minions that do all of the dirty work. While the minions (and the big K himself) are mostly practical effects, they tend to look like Japanese noh masks with no articulation at all. They are cool to look at, but by the end of the movie, they start looking like people in costumes. On the other hand, at least we don't have scenes of Kramps roaring into the camera with CGI spittle flying everywhere.

While personally I prefer THE REF to A CHRISTMAS STORY when it comes to subversive Christmas movies, KRAMPUS is a great little film if you are out to see a big budget PUPPET MASTER (1989), but it could have been edgier.

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