Say Goodbye To Christmas, Hello To Krampus

krampus21I love Christmas, which is something my friends seem to always find endearingly out-of-character compared to my usual prickly, frustrated state. Perhaps it’s because for me, Christmas has always represented the kind of earnest emotion and community that I wish we saw more often in the world. Having said that, I know there are plenty of people and families for whom Christmas is just a big, stinking dysfunctional mess, and that there is more than enough crass commercialism surrounding the holiday for someone to be cynical about it. It is into this dichotomy that Michael Dougherty drops a giant goat-demon, like you do. Krampus might not live up to the tremendous example of Dougherty’s Trick ‘R Treat but it is nevertheless a great monster movie and a great Christmas movie in equal measure.

The story of Krampus is about what you’d expect: a family’s young son has his faith in Santa and Christmas challenged by detached parents, a self-involved sister and an obnoxious extended family, until he ultimately denounces the holiday and brings the wrath of the titular monster down on all of them. In setting all of this up, Dougherty and his cadre of writers show remarkable restraint. They spend the entire first act just setting up the family dynamics and the resigned perspective on Christmas that collectively define the emotional core of the film. And even once Krampus and his minions arrive, the slow boil continues for a bit, hinting and teasing at the threat before letting things go off.

But once Dougherty lets loose, he really goes all-out. The horror movie antics are both intense and absurd in equal measure, and always entertaining. Be it a tribe of evil elves or a gang of homicidal gingerbread men (seriously), the film is more than willing to stretch itself for the sake of personality, and the end result is pretty damn successful. Not to mention that Dougherty & company pull no punches in their body count either; the sort of characters that usually learn something and survive are among the first to die, adding to the excitement and uncertainty.

9a500b86e19e5f6868f0fec6c2961c51f31ac9d9However, in an attempt to keep us on our toes and throw as much mischief onscreen as possible, the filmmakers sometimes seem to lose sight of the obvious story beats that would make the film more emotionally impactful. Many of the interpersonal conflicts that are highlighted in the first act are sort of forgotten as the story moves along, as the family focuses on survival almost exclusively. Things like the parents’ detachment from each other and the grating self-satisfaction of the extended family are never really resolved or punished, and without that mix of catharsis and comeuppance the film seems to be lacking a definitive point.

But then, all of that is thrown into question by the entertainingly bitter finale (SPOILERS). In the end after the rest of the family has been taken by Krampus, the son that started this awfulness confronts the monster and attempts to take the wish back, saying that he just wants Christmas to be like it used to be. Krampus laughs, and then in a flash it is suddenly Christmas morning and everyone is alive and happy and together… and then we pull back and see the entire family and their home is trapped in a snow globe in Krampus’ lair along with dozens of others. This finale, besides being darkly amusing, also seems to signal a shift in message. When taking the family’s final fate into account, it’s possible that Dougherty and the writers are criticizing the omnipresent warm-and-fuzzy idealism of Christmas as being just as hollow and superficial as the mindless consumerism the film begins with. While I don’t think the film isn’t tightly structured enough for such a thematic point to be definitive, this is the reading of the film I’m most comfortable with.

With this thematic shift in mind, it’s actually a little surprising that I liked Krampus as much as I did, given that it’s questioning even the parts of Christmas I like. If nothing else it speaks to how unabashedly fun the film is, but besides that I also appreciate the emotional core of the story. Our adolescent protagonist yearns to have this extended moment of love and good cheer in his life, to find even a little comfort and joy for himself and his family, and Krampus captures that feeling very well. If the film overall is holding both the positive and negative sides of Christmas as equally phony and masturbatory, it is at least honest and respectful of the IDEA of what Christmas could mean for someone, and that makes a huge difference.

Krampus isn’t perfect: the theme isn’t always clear, and the slow boil can sometimes be too slow. But the two things that it gets right are the idealism (misplaced or not) and the fun. Combined, they add up to a wild but bitterly romantic tale, one that deserves a place in the annals of good Christmas movies

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