Sunday, December 6, 2015

Krampus (2015)

After some careful consideration, Lindsay and I agree that Krampus is our second favorite dark comedy/horror/fantasy movie released this year that features the famous Christmas demon. To be fair, there was some stiff competition.

Honestly, Krampus is only nominally comedy or horror - I'd describe the film as a fairy tale before referring to either of those genres. And fairy tale is where Krampus's strength lies: it's a fantasy about Christmas magic and the darker implications of that concept. In realizing this side of the holidays, the movie employs some amazingly beautiful visuals. When we first set eyes on Krampus, we're too busy staring in awe to be afraid.

Which doesn't mean there aren't some jump scares and the like. But there's less horror than wonder, even when the things on screen are anything but friendly.

The movie opens somewhat gratuitously on dramatized imagery of shoppers battling each other for sales. It's here both to establish the degree to which we've forgotten the Christmas spirit and to make it absolutely clear the film makers aren't taking this whole thing too seriously. While the Christmas spirit does play into the larger movie, the focus is misplaced: the rest of the film is constrained to the principal characters. I don't think reflecting on the larger culture serves much purpose beyond making a very tired point about consumerism. And, frankly, I'm starting to think the whole Black Friday shaming trend is getting out of hand.

As for the tone, it feels somewhat disingenuous. The comedic parts are largely over in the first thirty minutes, and the movie's at its best when it does take itself seriously. The opening almost comes off as an apology in advance. And there's really nothing Krampus has to apologize for.

The film makers have described the first twenty or thirty minutes as "Christmas Vacation," as opposed to the remainder, which is more Gremlins. You can absolutely see the inspiration in the set-up: it's about an extended family coming together despite the fact they don't get along, have much in common, or particularly like each other. Hell, the two halves even superficially resemble the tribes from the National Lampoon "classic." As someone who feels the need to put the word classic in quotes, I was absolutely elated to discover that the similarities didn't go much deeper.

This section was actually pretty good, despite not being anywhere near as funny as it seemed to think it was. The extended family was appropriately dislikable at first; you were looking forward to seeing them hunted down by the encroaching darkness.

That darkness, incidentally, was brought on accidentally by the movie's primary protagonist, a young boy at the cusp of giving up his faith in Santa and Christmas in general. When two older cousins humiliate him by reading his letter aloud, it pushes him over the edge. He tears up the letter and silently wishes they'd all just go away.

Of course, something hears his plea. A dark cloud moves in, bringing a fierce blizzard. Soon, his family - close and extended both - are being attacked by strange monsters based on twisted Christmas traditions.

One of the movie's more impressive tricks is making the viewer re-evaluate those annoying family members. As things get darker, the clan comes together and finds both strength and common ground, so that each character taken feels like a loss.

The movie's weakest aspect is its ending, though it's hard to come up with a better resolution. The story ultimately writes itself into a corner that's all too common in the genre: there's simply no plausible scenario in which the protagonists can win. There are only a handful of options at this point: deus ex machina, tragedy, or cheese. The compromise they go with is as good an option as any, but it left me feeling robbed of any real conflict. On some level, Krampus was playing with the family throughout the film, and the resolution - however you interpret it - was chosen by him. That makes for cool folklore, but not for a satisfying tale.

Of course, if you're more accustomed to horror stories where humans are left at the mercy of impossibly powerful foes, you may have a more generous assessment of the last fifteen or twenty minutes.

Even so, the movie's gorgeous visuals of an winterscape beset by dark forces, as well as the brilliantly executed fairy tale Christmas horror, make it an enjoyable experience. It also offers a unique and thoughtful look at Christmas magic and the importance of family.

All told, Krampus isn't quite a great movie, but it does enough well to forgive its flaws. More than that, this feels like a movie that will age well. The shortcomings in the script will seem less significant over time, while the imagery of Krampus leaping from roof to roof will linger, as will countless others. I walked out of the theater with decidedly mixed feelings about this, but - the more I think about it - the more impressed I am with its strengths. I can easy imagine this becoming something of a flawed classic, revisited for decades to come.

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