The man Sean Hutchinson and I debate the merits, or complete lack of merits, of the new Michael Dougherty-directed horror-comedy Krampus, which opens worldwide today.
Winston Cook-Wilson: I had been eying Krampus for many months. My excitement was not so much due to the fact that I am a particular devotee of horror comedy; I was expecting that the bizarre scares, the weird-out Weta Workshop special effects and the rollout of the odd Krampus legend and mythology would carry the film. I certainly wasn’t gearing up for great punchlines from Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman and the crew, or something other than a pretty bland dysfunctional-family-forced-to-come-together exposition. But I did expect the movie to move me in some way — to deliver a modicum of the satisfaction that comes with watching either a good horror movie or a comedy.
For me, Krampus disappointed on almost all counts. I’ll concede the creatures were singular-looking and often hilarious to take a stare at — even though I was not moved by the robot or the razor-toothed teddy bear. Ultimately, I feel like it would be hard for the pacing of the scares, and the “kills,” to be any more poorly timed. Effective moments — the grotesque snowmen multiplying outside of the family’s window, the faceoff between the gape-mouthed hunchback Krampus and the German grandmother, the daughter’s initial sighting of Krampus on the foggy rooftop — were isolated incidents, and not followed up upon. The snowmen did not storm the house, or morph into the significantly less effective masked elves that actually do. The Krampus minions are not unveiled one by one; they converge on the house randomly and all at once. The scare section effectively leads with showing us Krampus, not the multiplying snowmen building tension or the evil gifts unhatching one by one to presage the big boss.
But perhaps the strangest element of the horror-film section — the second half — of Krampus is the pacing of the “kills” and disappearances. Most of the characters end up being swallowed up at the eleventh hour, in less than five minutes, by an ice worm beneath the snow that we never even see. There is very little diversity to the battles and injuries. David Koechner’s leg injuries disappear quickly. Krampus’ first round of archdemons attack all at once in slightly-too-shadowy, unparsable hand-to-hand combat and are retracted quickly — too much is crammed into too little of a space of time. Obviously, this is a movie catered (sort of) toward kids, but even without some “money shot” gore, there could have been clearer, separated, and more creative face-offs between characters and specific ghouls, and consequences of those battles. The not-even-pleasant nail gun fight with the gingerbread men, which fulfilled some of these criteria, didn’t make up for the general trend of withholding.
Sean, I think you found the meatier horror section of the film more compelling than me. What worked for you, and what didn’t?
Sean Hutchinson: Well, if you put it like that…
I think I was definitely a little more forgiving than you, but the complaints you raise are definitely valid. I may have let things slide because I went into it without any sense of skepticism about it being some transcendental horror comedy. It’s a movie called Krampus with the main baddie being a goat demon that punishes bad kids on Christmas. It’s an absurd concept and I knew absurd things would happen.
I think the constant and often unrelenting craziness that happens in the horror-centric second half of the movie when Krampus unleashes his creepy minions works insofar as it’s a complete 180-degree turn from the comedic beginning. This is where Krampus works best. It isn’t a sort of winking horror-comedy like Cabin in the Woods. Instead it commits to going to absolutely bonkers lengths without making total sense but still being effectively batshit.
If you sat someone down to watch Krampus without telling them the title or what it was about, the setup would have them believe it was going to be a regular old Christmas movie about a troubled family finding the meaning of the holiday through potentially something magical happening. Once that little kid gets pissed at his family and tears up his letter to Santa you’d imagine some benevolent elf would show up to right the family’s wrongs. Instead the movie plays with that expectation and puts these miserable bickering people through yuletide hell.
But again, I agree with what you said about it setting up a lot of things that it doesn’t pay off, especially dealing with its primary themes. Any subtext or commentary about the commercialization of the holiday, to using the “War on Christmas” as a political stance is simply mentioned and abandoned for Krampus-related carnage. You had a problem with the way some of the Krampus elves and evil toys were introduced, but what did you think about the effects themselves? I’m a stickler for practical effects and they almost took on a Gilliam-esque weirdness. What did you think about that?
WCW: Outside of not really caring for the look of the teddy bear and the fast-shanking robot (which one couldn’t even really get a good look at) the elves took on a bit too much of the connotation of the recent trend of creepy masks in home invasion/nu-Batman movies. I wish we’d kind of gotten better closeups or any one-on-one encounters with those guys — instead, they flock in and out pretty quickly, and again, affect pretty much nothing except a sound design full of sinister yammering. I appreciate how the effects looked for the most part, but the way they were deployed really mitigated their power.
I definitely did like Krampus himself, but again, he did pretty much nothing except hop around, slap his chains around like the Marleys in The Muppet Christmas Carol and hand spooky bells to the relevant people.
Perhaps everything might have carried a little more charge if, as you mentioned, the “War on Christmas” theme was established better, or [director] Michael Dougherty and Co. had left us believing that Krampus and the gang being unlocked was the result of more than just the main bow-tied child, Max, being fed up with his family and ripping up a letter to Santa.
The materialistic, selfish America portrayed in the pretty-excellent Black Friday-set credits sequence is only half borne out in the family. In net, we end up with boring tension revolving around half-jokes about people from Middle Pennsylvania who shop at Cabela’s and whose mood is dictated by the movements of the Steelers. These characters are not well-drawn or deeply reprehensible enough to further the themes of the opening. Dougherty’s humor feels outright classist at times: Sure, it’s not cool to carry around military-grade firepower in the trunk of your Hummer, but the send-ups read like Dougherty taking feeble pot shots at blue-collar people, and expecting the audience to automatically hate them because of the demographic they loosely embody.
And also, none of these characters really matter. Even the character who unlocks Pandora’s box here doesn’t matter. He’s again the last man standing in the Krampus nightmare, but ultimately he doesn’t save the day in any respect, and has only the most vague self-transformation. He admits that maybe he was a little rash about hating on Christmas to Kramp-man, but the long-tongued old ghoul doesn’t disappear in a puff of smoke once the boy admits the error of his ways: Krampus throws him into the lava pit (Hell?) like anyone else. Instead of Krampus’ invincibility feeling cool and horror-movie-franchisey (Krampus II? Nah), it just makes one reflect on how few dramatic payoffs this movie has delivered.
So if you don’t have strong characters, well-paced action, a dramatically important mythology or any full-bodied jokes (my main — read: only — laughs were over the fact that the grandmother constantly spoke so intensely dramatically in German) what exactly do you have? There were plenty of movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s that follow Krampus’s ethos in various ways — movies like Gremlins and even Arachnophobia — in which families are terrorized by monsters, and the tone is appealingly harebrained and goofy without there being a lot in the way of laugh-out-loud punchlines. But Krampus doesn’t have the plot or pacing to approach the quality of these movies. It’s a film for no clear demographic, which I always kind of like in movies (I kind of fuck with Hook), but the attendant cult-film weirdness is simply not there.
SH: I’d still be up for Krampus II: The New Batch.
But look, all your points are valid. This movie makes no sense, it doesn’t pay off a lot of what it sets up, and it plays up the Pennsylvania redneck things with Koechner’s character and his family.
I would definitely disagree with you about the kid’s transformation. He’s a general bystander throughout, and mostly interprets the unexplained German translations with the grandmother. But this is a kid who starts off hating his family and everything they represent. Besides going for minimal yuks, the early scenes made me really recognize those family squabbles that everybody has around the holidays, which are ostensibly supposed to be a time of thankfulness. But each of them are systematically picked off by Krampus and his minions, and it turns into a you-don’t-know-what-you-got-till-it’s-gone-type situation. All of the familial bullshit drops away and they band together because of this outrageous situation. He doesn’t save the day, but does George Bailey really save the day in It’s a Wonderful Life? No, he simply sees how bad it can get and learns to accept his life and his family. An angel taught George Bailey that, but a gigantic mythological Germanic goat teaches the kid that.
I think this movie is destined to fail at the box office but be revived in late December nights when half-drunk friends are perusing Netflix for something to watch. In that case, Krampus is worth it.
WCW: I would read you doing a systematic comparison of It’s A Wonderful Life and Krampus. But still, if I was going to engage a buzzed holiday horror screening, I would dig up a VHS of Christmas Evil before re-viewing Krampus.