Studio: Universal Home Video
Release date: April 26th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Even though he’s only directed two feature films, it feels fair to assume Michael Dougherty revels in mischief. Most horror movies thrive on a sense of transgression, of course, but Dougherty’s brand of it is soaked in a specific blend of juvenile provocation, witty black humor, and harmless fun. It’s somehow mean-spirited and good-natured all at once, truly a trick-or-treat mentality that was obviously well-served in his debut. These are difficult notes for a filmmaker to hit because it’s a difficult mix to explain, much less quantify. There’s a real je-ne-sais-quoi, lightning-in-a-bottle essence to it that Dougherty has captured twice now—first with Trick ‘r Treat, and now with Krampus, another bout of holiday horror that brings a little bit of Halloween to Christmas.
Krampus is couched from the oddly bleak perspective of Max Engel (Emjay Anthony), a moody pre-teen who’s beginning to realize that Christmas isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of spending time with his older sister, eagerly anticipating Santa’s arrival between television specials and other traditions. In its place is the sinking feeling that Christmas kind of sucks. Not only is it highly possible that Santa doesn’t even exist, but you’re also stuck in a house and forced to mingle with extended family you’d rather avoid. It’s from this miserable, wintry miasma that Krampus—the ancient spirit of an anti-Claus—arrives with minions in tow to wreak havoc on the Engels’ holiday gathering.
A perverse and conflicting sense of glee and horror arises out of it—on the one hand, Dougherty’s playfully warped imagination is infectious, and you can’t help but delight at the horde of (mostly) practical special effects creations. I maintain that one of the best compliments I can pay to Krampus is calling it the best Empire Pictures or Full Moon effort that Charles Band never made. Once Krampus and his underlings begin their assault, nearly every frame is stuffed with twisted, inverted visions of Christmas lore. Gingerbread men come to life, brandishing tiny candy canes in their attempt to murder the family; meanwhile, a jack-in-the-box stowed away in the attic has transformed into a nightmarish, slit-mouthed clown.
The appearance of razor-toothed teddy bears and living-dead baby dolls adds to the mounting silliness, practically inviting you to laugh at the absurdity, which nonetheless sweeps you away into the madness that is Krampus. It’s a gas but it’s put on with a sense of pride: you can almost hear Dougherty and his small army of artists whispering in your ear, inviting you to take a look at one demented creation after the next, not unlike a kid thumbing through his sketchbook, showing off some weird doodles. Krampus is a triumph in design and art direction, from its bevy of creatures to its twisting of a winter wonderland into a snowy, purgatorial hellscape.
But on the other hand, you can’t help but be horrified that this is happening to this set of characters. With a movie like Krampus, it’s tempting to indulge in gleeful carnage without giving the characters so much as a cursory thought. Watching a horde of demonic Christmas critters plow through a bunch of assholes has its merits, after all. However, Dougherty resists this urge by crafting an indelible family in the Engels and tethering the ordeal to the tense (and all too relatable) dynamics between them. Max’s immediate family has its own problems: his dad Tom (Adam Scott) works long hours that keep him away from the house, leaving his mother Sarah (Toni Collette) with a house that just feels too quiet, especially since her daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen) is suddenly preoccupied with boys.
The last thing they need is to spend time with their boorish relatives, a bunch of mouth-breathers who arrive in a gas-guzzling SUV armed to the teeth with a small artillery. They’re everyone’s embarrassing, right-wing relatives who spend too much time passing around fake conservative memes on Facebook. Patriarch Howard (David Koechner) is an alpha male jerk, always ready to needle the less aggressive Tom, while his three older kids are a bunch of brats; what’s more, they arrive with nightmarish Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) in tow, a nagging old hen with verbal barbs to spare. This is the Christmas from hell before any actual hellspawn are involved.
Even though most of these characters are cult from a clichéd cloth (I didn’t even mention Krista Stadler’s old-world, exposition-spouting grandmother), they’re infused with an authentic, relatable humanity. Despite the presence of a demon, the Christmas spirit is actually at work here, as the family must overcome their differences in order to fend off the madness unfolding around them. Finding the sweet, gentle Christmas movie spirit resting at the center of this nightmare is quite a coup; what’s more remarkable how effortless it feels. This is a film that lets you have your sweet, syrupy holiday cake and allows you to eat it, too by gifting an array of gnarly monsters and affable, well-drawn characters.
The result is the best kind of ridiculous romp that allows you to delight in the horror elements as you simultaneously hope they’ll leave at least some of the family intact. What Dougherty realizes is that there need not be any conflict between these two urges; rather, the fun rests in teasing out the tension between them, causing the audience to both revel in and recoil from the horror all at once. For whatever reason that word “fun” has become something of a dirty word, one that’s frowned upon because it connotes an object as somehow being lesser, not to be taken seriously.
As it turns out, Dougherty realizes that a Krampus movie probably shouldn’t take itself too seriously: it should be warped, unhinged, sweet, weird, and kind of fucked up. But most of all, it should be fun, sort of like the recognizable blend of anxiety, dread, and excitement kids feel when waking up on Christmas morning and racing to the presents, unsure if they’ll be gifted a lump of coal or not.
To that end, Krampus’s home video release confirms exactly what you might suspect about its production: by all accounts (and there’s about 45 minutes of accounts here, not including the commentary), it was a blast to make. Granted, this sort of studio-sanctioned release isn’t typically the sort that’s going to suggest anything otherwise, but the various featurettes here reveal a palpable enthusiasm and fondness from the cast and crew.
The main supplement is “Krampus Comes Alive,” a five-part, 30-minute look into various aspects of the production. It begins with “Dougherty’s Vision,” which discusses the director’s aim for the film before moving on and focusing on other elements, such as the cast, the production design, and even the stunt-work. Several representatives from the effects team appear during these segments but also return for “Behind the Scenes at WETA Workshop,” a 10-minute bit that takes a closer look at the costumes, creature designs, and effects implementation.
About 17-minutes of deleted and extended scenes also appear, with most serving to flesh out some small character moments. Many of them are subtle, minor additions, but there are a couple of extended interactions between beefing family members that I wouldn’t have minded making the final cut. On the other hand, the alternate ending was rightfully left on the cutting room floor in favor of the twisted finale Dougherty eventually went with.
Speaking of Dougherty, he appears on the commentary alongside co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields to reveal even more about the production. Finally, a five-minute gag reel the usual assortment of promotional galleries (still images, posters, concept art, and storyboards) round out a disc that doesn’t disappoint. It seems like Universal realizes it already has a cult classic on its hands, so the studio has gone ahead and delivered a release that will suffice rather than make fans wait for a double dip later.
Indeed, fans have a disc they can already put on the shelf and have ready to go for December, when the film is inevitably slotted into annual Christmas horror rotations. Even though it’s probably too soon to definitively declare as such, Krampus has earned its way into that sort of company. You hear Gremlins name-dropped and cited as an influence a few times during the supplements, meaning Dougherty and company did not lack for ambition. That’s a tough bar to even approach, much less clear, but Krampus at least lands somewhere in the neighborhood of its gnarled, inside-out approach to Yuletide revelry. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: