Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I tell you what you could be watching instead of wandering a sea of nameless strangers who double as meaty pylons that insist on getting in your way (and only your way) as you make your way through the mall to purchase one tiny thing that had the audacity to run out on you in December. Seriously, just stay inside and watch a movie with me instead. It’ll take just as long and you’ll have far lower blood pressure at the end of it.
We’re back this week with another holiday themed horror film to help us usher in another season of avoiding political topics and subtle arguments that we pretend we’re not having with extended family members. The more astute of you last week could probably hazard a guess at what it was going to be as there was a (not so) tiny clue in last week’s film. Thanks to the title of the review, now even those who didn’t read last week’s review know as well so let’s not leave anyone out and make our way through a new holiday horror flick based on my favorite Christmas monster, Krampus!
I detailed last week why I absolutely love Krampus as a figure so much but for those of you who are kind of in the dark on this devilish character, let me help fill in the blanks a bit. In recent years, the figure of Krampus has really come into its own, being adopted from its folkloric roots in Austria* (and to some extent southern Germany) to getting its own celebrations in various cities in North America and beyond. Its reputation is still a little fuzzy, however, as most people see it as just being Santa’s foil. This was its role even in last week’s film A Christmas Horror Story. In truth, this perception isn’t exactly coming from nowhere. Aside from the obvious element of it looking like a giant devil with a long tongue and terrifying horns, this image was something that was cultivated by the church back when it was trying to get those pesky pagans to adopt a single lord and savior. Through their PR campaigns, Krampus got reinvented as Santa’s not so little helper who delivered a hell of a lot more than coal to the naughty. More specifically, Krampus doled out punishments to the tune of floggings with switches and getting carried off in a huge sack. Post sack destinations vary depending on traditions and storytellers but the general consensus was that neither was really preferable unless you were hoping to have fewer children at the end of the holiday season. Most of the tales that I’ve come across include either getting dumped into the universe’s worse tube slide down to the fiery pits of hell or down the gaping maw of Krampus itself.
There have been some other creative tales wherein bad children end up in a life of servitude to Santa as a new elf or other part of the Christmas tradition, though most of what I’ve seen of these variants has been courtesy of pop culture and modern writers’ imaginations rather than from anything based on the folklore traditions. Before anyone gets too upset about this divergent step from tradition, however, we should remember that Krampus was already steps away from its pagan origin by the time Hollywood welcomed it through the holiday front door. It should also be noted that Krampus was used all these years as a means to scare the shitty behavior out of children around the holidays anyway, so not only is it really not a stretch to see it being developed beyond the basics and into more creative means of adapting the old to the new. After all, given modern times, coal is hardly a deterrent to bad behavior and given how much less of it there is in the world, that’s practically a reward, depending on how much of it they get. Besides, this is all just a drop in the Krampus bucket because ultimately, it’s not what it does that makes this beastly holiday visitor popular so much as what it represents.
As mentioned last week, Krampus appeals to a special demographic of people who are in need of some reprieve from the nightmares that come with the holidays. By the 25th, that might be almost everyone but there are people for whom the start of December is just the beginning of a month long migraine that gets worse every single day. For those people a new tradition was needed and luckily for them, there was an Austrian* monster that just happened to find its way onto the internet. It’s true that we’ve had Jack Skellington and Santa Slashers for years now to act as alternatives to the overly cheery, sugary, saccharine celebrations put forth by Coca Cola. (Yes, for all three people in the world who don’t know, that’s really where the current image of the jolly fat man comes from. To quote from a rather popular holiday movie, this traditional idea of the red suit, the rosy cheeks and the twinkling eyes is, in fact, “a crummy commercial”.) Holiday horror obviously existed well before even the arrival of killer Santas because there have always been people who have wanted to escape the cloying grip of the season, even if it was only through fiction. That said, holiday horror stories weren’t always about subverting the seasonal trappings. It wasn’t as though Scrooge got out of the holiday cheer bullshit so much as he got told he would roast in the flames for avoiding it. (And there was some stuff in there about being a greedy bastard too, but it kinda also came on the heels of also saying fuck this holiday dinner stuff, I’m staying home with my piles of money.)
There were other tales of old that told of the dangers or the down sides of engaging in the Christmas season. One particularly famous one was from the Victorian period that even came with its own merch! Frozen Charlotte was the tale of a girl that, either through vanity or impracticality, failed to wear warm enough clothing through her sleigh ride and upon arriving at her destination, was reduced to being a corpsicle. Victorians didn’t just tell this story around the holidays but also hid little Frozen Charlotte dolls in their food for the kidlets to find. Because it was never too early to bring up gruesome death by frost bite with the wee ones back in the days when everything from the wallpaper to your food might kill you. Gruesome elements of Victorian life aside, this story just goes to show that there was a market for the macabre and the disturbing in our Yuletide celebrations long before our discovery of the Alpine holiday beastie. In fact, there are some good arguments to be made as to why our need for holiday horrors at this time of year is more important now and in need of stronger images than we’re used to.
Keeping this in mind, it’s fitting that the opening scenes of this film feature some very funny but ultimately unfortunately real scenes of actual holiday horrors. While obviously played for laughs, it’s clear that this is a parody of some of the very real riots and violent crowds that have been caught on tape during Black Friday sales in the US. It’s almost a laugh to keep from crying moment as you watch the crowds spilling into the store, trampling over workers and each other to get at the sales first because IT’S MINE YOU MOTHERFUCKER AND YOU BETTER BELIEVE THAT I’LL SLICE YOU OPEN BEFORE I LET YOU TOUCH THIS THOUGHTFUL GIFT FOR SOMEONE ON MY LIST I’LL FIGURE OUT WHO IT WAS FOR LATER. Yeah, if you’ve ever worked in retail or you have any kind of anxiety issues, you’re going to want to skip this entire first scene because it will either make you break out in hives at the sight of everyone all around you at once or bring back traumatic memories of being stuck in a sea of demanding, greedy shoppers while fantasizing about sticking sharp objects in your ears to drown out the fifth time you’ve hear Bing Fucking Crosby in the last hour. The thing about this scene is that it’s legitimately uncomfortable to watch and that’s why it’s good. You get right in there, deep and dirty, with the feeling of being surrounded by chaos, vitriol, frustration and anger just at the sight of what’s going on in that scene. And you get even more uncomfortable with the follow up wherein our family is introduced as they set up for the world’s most unpleasant family gathering.
Last week I made a joke that our film this week was basically just taking the second tale of A Christmas Horror Story and extending it over a whole movie. That wasn’t really that far off the mark as this film really does have most of the same elements with some minor changes. It does have some major differences that make it more fun to watch but I’ll get to that soon enough. As far as the set up goes, it’s nearly identical. We have our basic nuclear family with a mom and dad, a teen girl and a young boy who isn’t quite a preteen yet but edging his way there soon enough. Old enough to be self sufficient in a pinch but young enough that he can still feasibly believe in more childish things. And in a case of second verse, same as the first, mom is kind of fussy, dad is a workaholic, sister is a typical snotty teen attached to her phone and little kid brother had a bit of feisty streak to him, getting into fights with other people at least two or three times in the course of the film. Sounds pretty familiar, right? Why yes, of course it is. This is not only the same plot as the previous film but also Christmas Vacation and Home Alone and a slew of other holiday movies wherein you have a dysfunctional family trying to pretend they enjoy this holiday. One of the things that I had picked out of last week’s story as being a weak point was the lack of interest you had in the family because they were all so awful. By contrast, this family is clearly out of step with each other but director Michael Dougherty brings out enough empathy in them that you don’t really hate them and can’t see them truly hating each other. It’s an important distinction as the film sets up for the main event and they are forced to actually act as a family instead of a group of people who tolerate each other.
The plot of Krampus is actually pretty simple when you break it down and a good chunk of the film is that initial shitty holiday set up. A normal, if not a bit strained and fussy, family have their extended relatives over for a holiday meal that gets tense and awkward in a hurry. In the heat of everything, our main character, Max, basically gives up on the Christmas spirit and his frustration and (fairly justified) anger makes way for our title villain to dampen everyone’s holiday. Post argument the next day, our family wakes up to find that there is no power anywhere and there’s a wild snow storm brewing outside. With no phone, no power, no heat and a group of people who were already at each other’s throats, it looks as though our family is just about to put the cherry on top of their shitty Christmas sundae. Then people start to disappear and things really hit the fan as the group has to pull together to figure out what’s going on and what they need to do. That gets a lot more difficult when our holiday beastie sends his “little helpers” to start fishing for victims and starts to lure the family apart.
I want to get this out of the way right off the bat: This is not a scary movie, especially if you’re looking for a holiday horror flick, but this is way too much fun to pass up if you’re in the mood for subversive Christmas movies. There’s a reason that I keep alluding to the comedies that have already proven the formula for the dysfunctional Christmas and that’s because this is where this film really begins its life and continues to lean very heavily on for the rest of the movie. There’s no scare tactics and no indication that this monster is going to get you when you least expect it. In that way, if you’re looking for that thrill of a jump coming, you won’t find it here. In fact, one of the reasons you might be disappointed in it is that when it tries to lean more on the horror part of the script, it kind of almost clashes a bit. The comedy still wants to paint these people as being likeable, if a bit awkward and not always as good people, but that gets difficult to pander to when you suddenly turn them into beast bait. But all that established, this is still entirely worth watching during the holidays for a few reasons, the first of which is the little helpers.
Dougherty and friends get absolutely creative with the elements of the holiday and it puts you in mind of films like Gremlins or even the Futurama Xmas episodes with how they take holiday cliches and have fun with them. It makes you look at the gingerbread and the toys and elves and decorations in this twisted, fun way as these things attack the family. These are seriously some of the best and funniest scenes in the film as these characters get attacked by toys, baked goods, decorations and other holiday trappings. The designs are somehow both kind of whimsical and creative while bringing a nice touch of crooked, twisted wrongness to them. There’s no real gore or blood on display, which is a bit too bad but, again, considering the family movies that this one is going for, it’s well within its lane and it’s not a deal breaker. About my only real criticism of this part of the film can be broken into two parts. I’ll get to the second, more pressing, part in a minute but the first is that we almost don’t get enough of the helpers. They are introduced later in the film than they maybe ought to be and we get glimpses of them without getting too much to enjoy for any real stretch of time. Their antics are fun and the violence they bring is a riot but it doesn’t really last long enough to be able to really get into what they do. I feel like this part is a bit of a downer because it’s a lot of wasted potential, particularly when we could have cut down on the crappy holiday cliches at the front to make more room for this part. But that said, this leads directly into the biggest criticism I have of the film.
Simply put, there’s not enough Krampus and when we do get to see it properly, the design could have been better. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the way they cloaked it up and gave it those intense, massive horns. I absolutely love that! What I don’t love is that Krampus is given a whole lot of not much to do in a film that bares its name. The filmmakers pay lip service to the whole carrying the sack thing and they say something or other about the underworld but these are throw away lines in a film ABOUT KRAMPUS!! This kind of bullshit worked in the other film because that was an anthology setting where they squished that tale into three other tales and tried to make it work. Here, they squished the best holiday monster into a tale about a family and an extended family and a backstory about the grandmother and a bunch of little helpers and you get five minutes of Krampus. That’s not to say that what you see doesn’t really deliver some good punch and some ominous images. The image of Krampus jumping from rooftops does actually get some nice thrill factor to it because it does lend some weight to the creature as being formidable and genuinely threatening. Where it drops the ball is in the facial design for the creature. If you Google image search the words “Gruss Vom Krampus” (which is German for “Greetings from Krampus”), you will be bombarded by images of a devilish goat-like figure with the long tongue, big horns, a sack and a switch in its hand. You’ll note that if you watch this, things that barely make any appearance are the sack, the long tongue and completely absent are the switch and the devilish features. Considering how much fun and creativity went into the elves and the gingerbread and the twisted toys, I feel like they could have spared some of that for the main event. Krampus doesn’t look horrible but it doesn’t look like Krampus and given that and the fact that we don’t see it doing any of the things that are promised by the folkloric roots, I would say that this is where the movie could have spent far more time developing. All this said, I do want to highlight one part of the film that I think was brilliant and well worth your time.
So if you’re living in North America, there’s almost no chance that you’ve managed to escape the onslaught of holiday specials that run rampant like a particularly bad case of herpes at this time of year and nothing is more prevalent or as unpleasant as the continuing love that people have for that utterly awful Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer claymation nightmare. I get it. Everyone in the Western hemisphere saw this stupid kid’s show and I do understand that this is coming after some people’s nostalgia trips. That said, those claymation shows were creepy as fuck and the songs, while horrible, are pretty good at wedging themselves into your brain like a festering disease. I am positive that I’m not the only adult in the world who really strongly considers self induced deafness to hearing Rudolph’s shrill voice or the odd, grating whistle of his illuminated nose ever again. And with that, you might think this next part would have me frothing at the mouth at the memories it stirred up but in truth, even though it totally reminds me of those claymation shows, I found this part of the film utterly charming because of it.
When the grandmother tells her backstory and introduces what Krampus is supposed to be (slightly inaccurately but then again, when has Hollywood ever been inaccurate when adapting folklore??), her tale is told through some excellent animation that I legitimately cannot tell if it is all CGI or actual stop motion. The reason I love this part so much is that it tells more of the story I wanted to see in a way that really harkens back entirely to the kinds of specials that I used to watch. The people who worked on this one three minute segment deserve all the non-violent gingerbread cookies because it is a beautifully done and a genuinely charming throwback to those old shows without ripping them off or being too cloying in their tribute. It hits just the right nostalgic notes and that makes me happy for all the right reasons.
So, in all of this, I hope it’s laid out properly that even though this isn’t the most faithful adaptation of Krampus, nor is it really as scary as it could have been, this is a great movie for the holidays, particularly for people who hate the holidays. It never really succumbs to the cloying messages that we’re used to in Christmas movies, even though they play a role. It has a lot of fun and creative ideas that it plays with. Even though Krampus isn’t in it enough nor is he really the greatest design-wise, you can do a hell of a lot worse and it does scratch an itch. Added to this, the funny moments are pretty good, the characters are likeable and played by some fantastically talented actors, the creatures we do see are a riot and ultimately, the tale is still very much a holiday story. The season is woven completely into the narrative and it feels like Christmas movie which makes its subversive elements all the more satisfying. If you’re looking for something to add to the playlist either to celebrate traditional things or subversive things, Krampus is an excellent choice!
And with that, we are done reviews for the year! Coming up, you’re going to get a teaser soon of the annual ghost story that will be starting on December 23, updating every day until New Years! In between time, though I don’t celebrate the holidays, I wish all my readers the very best of the season, regardless of what you do celebrate. Here’s hoping that you and your families, born or chosen, have a great time together, I hope that you all have more than enough to eat, I hope you all come through, safe, happy, warm and that no one finds their way on the wrong side of a switch and a sack. With much love and many happy wishes sent your way, Enjoy the Holidays and Friday Nightmare Reviews will return in the New Year!