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Krampus

Review by: 
A.J. MacReady
Release Date: 
2015
Studio: 
Universal
Genre: 
Horror
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
A
Aspect Ratio: 
2.41:1
Directed by: 
Michael Dougherty
Cast: 
Adam Scott
Toni Collette
Emjay Anthony
David Koechner
Allison Tolman
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
5

[In advance: this is a mildly spoiler-ish review in that I'll be discussing scenes & details that are probably best experienced as you watch the flick, so I'll point out up front: Krampus is, for me, an instant classic, and if what you're looking for is an overall yay-or-nay then this movie could not be a bigger YAY -- see it now, or as soon as (in)humanly possible]

               

Krampus is the Christmas movie that will kill the dog.

Some of you are sold right there, and to you I say, "Welcome." Some are now leaving the room, and to you I say, "Sorry it's not for you; what a shame you're going to miss out." Because what we are dealing with here in Krampus is a film made by a man who knows exactly what flick he intends to deliver to his audience...because he IS that audience. Director/co-writer Michael Dougherty grew up in the 80's (as this reviewer did) and as such was raised on a steady diet of movies like Poltergeist, The Dark Crystal, Nightmare on Elm Street, Gremlins -- and this is blatantly evident. Dougherty assembled a cast & crew who were onboard with what he had in mind and we should all be as thankful as kids on Christmas morning for this fact, because this fine group of people have given us a real, honest-to-Jeebus holiday gift. One we should count ourselves lucky to have, because Krampus is one bad motherfucker of a Very Special Christmas Episode From Hell, an honestly wonderful entertainment for fans of these types of films.

I'll dispense with the setup: young Max (Emjay Anthony) is having a rather difficult holiday season. His parents (the fabulous Toni Collette & Adam Scott) are growing apart, his older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is...well, an older sister, and his Uncle Howard and Aunt Linda (the rock-solid David Koechner & Allison Tolman) -- shitty/stupid children in tow --are in for Christmas to bring everything but holiday cheer. Case in point: they brought Aunt Dorothy (scene-stealing Conchata Ferrell, delighting in being utterly horrible). The only one Max can count on to be fully decent & loving is his German grandmother, Omi (Krista Stadler, an actress I don't know but is excellent here), as everyone else is too preoccupied with their own shit. All Max wants is to have Christmas be like it used to be, but when everyone else hurts him badly enough to turn against the holiday, a cold wind of punishment isn't far behind. A storm rolls into town and brings with it the anti-Claus and all his evil holiday minions...

You see, Krampus knows that we've ALL been naughty, and behaves accordingly.

There is SO much that this film does right for me that I could spend 1000 words dealing with just the first third of it. Right from the opening scene in a mall on Black Friday (which is hilarious precisely because it's so spot-on), the movie is on rails. It doesn't hurt that even in that scene, one which mostly sets the comedic tone, the film is busy setting up other things that will pay off down the line, particularly in terms of the characters. After that, Dougherty dives into a Spielberg-esque feel that radiates off the screen; it emanates from the look of the piece, the writing/direction, and the character work his superb cast provides (highlighted by a dinner scene in which everyone involved simply CRUSHES the material). Getting this domestic section correct is crucial to pulling off the larger whole and in every moment, we can feel the steady hand of the filmmakers guiding us through with remarkable skill.

In fact, as unsexy as that word is, "skillful" is what comes back to me rewatching Krampus and especially when I consider it critically -- from Dougherty on down, everyone knows what they're doing here and does his or her job with devastating clockwork precision. Even when the story hits familiar notes, it does so with style and expediency. The first indication that something is off (which, again, doesn't take long to get to because the film lays out the world, the characters, then sets things into darker motion right about 20 minutes in) is simply and, yes, skillfully done as a fantastically creepy snowman shows up in the family's yard. This gear shift into a more menacing Amblin-in-the-80's/special-effects-extravaganza that's been patiently waiting to rear its head is masterfully executed...or should I say, it's highly skillful (okay, enough of that -- I think I've made my point).

Getting back to the snowman's entrance on the scene -- a particularly delightful facet of the film that stands out so effectively isn't merely the various elements of Christmas that the character of Krampus uses to do his malevolent bidding, but the way the film Krampus gleefully shreds so many conventions of both the holiday itself as well as movies about the holiday. I'll put it this way: there's a LOT of Christmas-oriented stuff that gets absolutely fucking destroyed. However, this isn't to say there aren't positive things we associate with the holiday present in the narrative ; at the end of the day, what we're seeing in Krampus is a family working together as a unit against an outside force trying to break them apart. The situation coming down to "horrible thing invading our house/neighborhood/town which we have no choice but to fight as it is literally trying to kill us" being something Krampus shares with Gremlins (the movie it's fated to become a holiday double-feature staple with for legions of genre fans) is merely a bonus. Watching this terrific cast of characters take on the threat is hugely entertaining, partially because of how seriously the actors take it. By that, I'm in no way saying that the flick suddenly requires them to play Ibsen or some shit; I am saying that occasionally they're asked to play the moment as grounded and real. As recognizable and relatable. These people band together as not just family, but friends, to save themselves and each other...which of course becomes even MORE entertaining to us after their plans take the handbasket express to hell and the axes and knives and nailguns and scissors and fire come out. Because no matter how well someone like Toni Collette might play one of the aforementioned relatable scenes, rest assured that Krampus will just as quickly go back into the weird, and then the even weirder. It's just nice that Dougherty understands that precisely because he's established those recognizably human moments, his film can hold onto a measure of an emotional core throughout all the craziness he's throwing at us.

I mean, the flick's got a scene that's best summed up as "fishing for little children." And it is just as brilliant as you'd want it to be. Ditto for the sequence that feels like an old Rankin-Bass holiday special tripping on the brown acid from Woodstock. Because it is the fucking best.

I want to point out just a few more things about Krampus I utterly adore before this goddamn review gets away from me (probably too late for that, actually):

* The terribly evocative and purely outstanding score by Douglas Pipes
* The sumptuous visuals courtesy of DP Jules O'Loughlin, who draws from that beautifully dark 80's lighting style without ever letting it disappear up its own pitch-black ass (looking at you, Peter Hyams)
* The fact that when it's time for the story to take a turn into the hardcore it does so in a refreshingly unsentimental fashion
* The kids (none of whom I've seen before), who could not be more perfect in their roles
* The practical FX (I'm gonna estimate 85% of all the effects are done without CG) and design from the legendary WETA workshop, who BRING THAT SHIT

Actually, I must take a moment solely to spotlight WETA's contributions, which are invaluable to the success of the film, I feel; the design of Krampus himself is simply awesome and instantly iconic (his first appearance in the film is mind-bogglingly perfect, truly). Speaking of iconic, trust me when I say that certain characters will become exactly that as the flick becomes recognized for the classic it is -- Jack, Teddy, & Cherub come immediately to mind. Overall, what WETA provides here is so oddly idiosyncratic, such a wonderful twist on the familiar, that these creations that overflow with personality (a wet, dirty, tattered, and used one, but still) stand out and resonate long after the credits roll on this baby.

Universal releases Krampus to Blu-ray chock-full of goodies, not unlike a Christmas stocking that is literally overflowing -- yes, the transfer looks great and sounds great (O'Loughlin's fine work & Jules Cook's production design gets one hell of a showcase and the 5.1 audio track revels in every delightful, terrifying noise) -- but the bonus features are the plate of cookies you're gonna want to devour here. There's a commentary I can't wait to listen to from Dougherty & his co-writers. We've got an alternate ending which is not as cool as the theatrical one, I'd say, but it's interesting to see. A collection of deleted/alternate scenes that, for the most part, you can really understand the exclusion of -- a couple great moments from Ferrell's awful Aunt Dorothy would've been good if they'd stayed, though. A short but groovy featurette about the cast (Meet The Naughty Ones) is but an appetizer for the main course of the extras, a Blu-ray exclusive called Krampus Comes Alive! which is a four-part making of that runs over 30 minutes (it's a lot of fun). Also exclusive to BD is a piece concerning the amazements of WETA Workshop that rounds out the bonus features. All in all, it's an excellently wrapped present chock-full of Christmas cheer...along with screams of fright and laughter.

The year 2015 got it done, cinema-wise. Most people would agree that we were treated to an instant classic in Mad Max Fury Road; I would submit that we got two that year, because Krampus is every bit the champion of its genre that MMFR is. I was lucky enough to catch it in theaters and loved it immediately, but rewatching it on Universal's excellent Blu-ray cemented things. Krampus is hilarious and fun and scary and the reason why we watch movies. It's a film that small kids will wet their pants over, but I  guarantee you this: it's going to change lives from this point on. There are children who will see this flick and never look back, that will fall head first into a lifelong love of horror...just as some of us did with Poltergeist, with Nightmare on Elm Street, and (yes) with Gremlins. What Michael Dougherty and his partners in crime have done here is an absolute triumph, and you may think I'm being hyperbolic, but I assure you -- if this is the kind of thing you LOVE, then you'll understand where I'm coming from. The man already created a Halloween staple in Trick r' Treat and now he's given us one for Christmas. So be thankful...and maybe you'll be able to keep your name off the naughty list.

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