Tuesday, December 8, 2015

In Theaters: KRAMPUS (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Michael Dougherty. Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields. Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Krista Stadler, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Inspired by a nightmarish holiday figure in Germanic folklore, KRAMPUS is at times quaintly old-fashioned in the way that, with a few tweaks, it could've been pretty much the same movie 30 years ago. It's got some dark elements in line with today's more snarky and cynical audiences, but in terms of style, score, and visual effects (yes, there's CGI, but there's a lot of practical-based work as well), it's the kind of GREMLINS-era mix of horror and dark comedy that recalls both the best of Joe Dante and a high-end, big-budget Full Moon title. It's a film out of its own time, much like its young protagonist Max (Emjay Anthony), a ten-year-old who's already nostalgic for a few years ago, desperately clinging to the notion of Santa Claus as his childhood slips away. His older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is always off with her boyfriend, and his parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) love each other but are very slowly growing complacent and drifting, with Tom spending so much time at work and Sarah's realization that time keeps ticking. The mood isn't helped by the holidays, which are supposed to bring cheer but instead bring relatives: Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her right-wing, gun-nut husband Howard (David Koechner), and their abrasively unpleasant children, bullying tomboys Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel) and silent-except-for-belching, Mountain Dew-guzzing Howie Jr (Maverick Flack, easily the most awesomely-named horror movie child actor since 28 WEEKS LATER's Mackintosh Muggleton), plus the bonus surprise of booze-guzzling, constantly-complaining Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).

In its earliest scenes, KRAMPUS does a great job of nailing all the terrible things about the holiday season, starting with an opening credits sequence that shows a mob of frothing-at-the-mouth shoppers stampeding into a big-box retailer in a symphony of destruction and mindless consumerism. Likewise, anyone will be able to relate to the dread and unease of family--people you might not necessarily be close to but they're family so you spend the holidays together--visiting, whether it's the way a judgmental aunt criticizes your cooking or your decor or the way you have to listen to your conservative blowhard brother-in-law bitch about Democrats and parroting what he heard on talk radio. When Stevie and Jordan make fun of Max's letter to Santa, Max tears it up and tosses it out the window. This fateful act awakens Krampus, a hooved, horned demon described by Tom's German-speaking mother Omi (Krista Stadler) in a beautifully-executed animated detour as "the shadow of St. Nicholas," the vengeful spirit who brings death and destruction on those who've lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. When a blizzard hits the next morning, knocks out the power and makes travel impossible, the family is holed up inside the house, forced to deal with each other and the evil elves of Krampus, who's trying to get into the house to teach them all a lesson.

KRAMPUS is directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, a Bryan Singer associate who co-wrote X2 and SUPERMAN RETURNS but is best known for writing and directing the cult horror anthology TRICK 'R TREAT, which was bounced around the release schedule for two years before going straight-to-DVD in 2009. I found it merely OK, but TRICK 'R TREAT has become a beloved Halloween favorite for today's horror fans, and with KRAMPUS, Dougherty establishes himself as the go-to guy for holiday fright. Both films have Dougherty demonstrating a fondness for (relatively) old-school horror, particularly the crowd-pleasing types of the '80s. KRAMPUS isn't necessarily scary, but it has a nicely creepy feel throughout, whether it's the snowbound desolation or the way ominous-looking snowmen keep popping up in the front yard and moving closer to the house. There's also a loving homage to the video-store favorites from Charles Band's Full Moon, with some evil toys and gingerbread men coming to life and attacking the family in vintage DEMONIC TOYS fashion, with an incredulous Howard, after shotgun-blasting gingerbread men who were attacking him with a nail gun, shouting "I just got my ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies...I'll believe anything!" Of course, the family bands together and casts aside their differences to survive the holiday onslaught, and KRAMPUS is probably accessible enough that kids would enjoy it, but it does get darker than you'd expect, especially in the way it pulls no punches in terms of who it's willing to kill off and in its deceptively happy ending that's really anything but. I don't think Dougherty has quite made his knock-it-out-of-the-park horror classic yet (despite horror scenester hype that KRAMPUS is "the next great horror classic!"), but his is a welcome voice that still has a lot of promise if he doesn't keep taking eight years between movies.

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