One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
horror movie lovers, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a holiday present
wrapped up with a bow.
a delightful, caustic, emotionally-resonant horror movie that feels like a
throwback to a bygone era. It’s a (most welcome…) relic from age when audiences
more easily or readily allowed fantasy and humor to inform the genre.
course, the great arc of movie history involves a push away from the theatrical
and artificial towards the naturalistic and realistic.
don’t waste too much thought mourning this shift in my favorite genre, and I
enjoy many modern horror movies tremendously. And yet, at the same time I cannot
help but note that so many are, well, humorless, or lacking real imagination. The genre I grew up with took fantasy and imagination as the starting point.
many new horror films feel that they must justify their realism, instead of
entertaining us with fantasy, laughs, and screams too.
so with Krampus.
film feels very much like a throwback to the era of Gremlins (1984), for
example, with its commentary on Christmas, and its quasi-comedic monsters. The demonic helpers in this film -- who count
ambulatory gingerbread men among their number -- straddle the line between terror
and comedy quite adroitly.
about ninety percent of the film, Krampus is also delightfully
cutthroat and vicious, in much the same way that one would apply that
descriptor to Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971).
Bad children and bad adults get punished for
their nasty behavior, and there’s no looking back or second guessing their grim fates. One mean-spirited kid who guzzles soda from the
bottle at a holiday dinner table gets lured up the chimney by a gingerbread cookie, and then dragged off
to the underworld in chains.
true that Krampus’s conclusion backs away from this delightfully
mean-spirited approach a little bit, but then, delightfully, the film reconsiders
the walk-back in favor of an ambiguous ending that could be read in a number of
suppose what impressed me most about Krampus was its perpetual sense of
imagination. A central scene in the film is a spectacularly shot-and-edited but
unconventional flashback. This scene
plays like a Christmas TV special from the 1960s, and yet is spooky and fun at the same time.
On a cerebral level,Krampus also clearly
boasts a point or purpose. The film’s opening
montage and characters remind us that we often live, today, in an ugly, materialistic
culture. And yet, by film’s end, Krampus’s
protagonists are all putting their differences and material desires aside for
the things that are important -- like family -- and I liked the optimism and heart of that statement.
visit from Krampus could clearly spoil any holiday season, but this cinematic
version of the scary myth is an absolute cause of celebration and revelry if one is an
aficionado of the horror film.
Christmas. Nothing bad is going to happen on Christmas.”
Engel family prepares for another harried, exhausted Christmas holiday at
Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah’s (Toni
Collette) son, Max (Emjay Anthony), has been in a fight, and Sarah’s sister,
Linda (Alison Tolman) is visiting with her obnoxious husband, Howie (David
Koecher) and their four children.Meanwhile, Tom and Linda’s daughter, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is obsessed
with her boyfriend, Derek.
family arrives, and with a surprise additional visitor to boot: surly Aunt Dorothy (Conchata
Ferrell). A family dinner goes awry when Linda’s kids steal Max’s letter to
Santa Claus and mock him for it.
up, Max rips up the letter to Santa, unwittingly summoning St. Nick’s dark,
ancient reflection, a demon called Krampus.
next morning, Krampus has trapped the family and its house in a grim winter wonderland,
replete with creepy snowmen.
evil being lays siege to the house with his monstrous minions. Among them are fanged teddy bears, murderous
toy robots, cackling gingerbread men, and even a hungry jack-in-the-box.
(Krista Stadler), Tom’s mother, has her own unique history with Krampus, and is able
to warn the family of the dangers it now faces.
She recounts a story from her youth, one in
which a lack of the Christmas Spirit brought Kramus to her village, and
resulted in her entire family being dragged to the underworld.
and his helpers did no come to give, but to take.”
critique of a 21st century Christmas begins right out the gate, with the opening
We watch as zombie-like crowds
pour into a store -- Mucho Mart -- and begin fighting each other over the best deals. There is rioting in the aisles, the constant passing of paper currency (in close-up) and views of children fighting in the
store. The faces of the consumers are
horrific, seen in close-up, and in slow-motion photography.
The impression is clearly that Christmas has,
in this age, become a crass and ugly season about the pursuit of material wants.
makes this montage all the more caustic and effective is that it is scored with
a nostalgic holiday tune: Meredith Wilson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like
Christmas,” sung by Perry Como.
hammers home the scene's point. It makes the scene drip with droll and wicked irony.
this is exactly what Christmas does look like to too many people.
It’s about having things; about getting things, about owning things.
It’s not about, in the words of Omi, “sacrificing,” or giving to others.
long after this montage, we see talking heads on TV debating the “War on Christmas,”
another divisive aspect of the modern holiday.
The spirit of the holiday -- about giving and love -- is absent not just
in terms of the violence and material desire the film showcases, but regarding the
hostility with which we view those who are different from us. We're all Americans, and yet we seem to hate one another. We can't even tolerate that someone might celebrate the holiday in a different way than we do.
actually a key point of the film.
two sisters in Krampus, Sarah and Linda, come from opposite political views.
Howie and Linda are Republicans who want to talk gun ownership at the dinner
table, deny global warming, and who, when faced with “free gifts,” say that
the recipients must be for “Democrats.”
contrast is a somewhat holier-than-thou liberal, and one who can’t really tolerate the fact that others boast different traditions (in terms of food and behavior)
the details of our red state/blue state divides are on display in Krampus, but I love the
movie’s process of (murderous) attrition, because it galvanizes the attention of both
Before long, the conservatives
and liberals are working together to survive.
The inescapable point? It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, Krampus
notes, because both types of Americans love their families, and want to protect
their children. Part of “rediscovering”
the Christmas spirit involves loving those who don’t believe exactly what you
believe, and yet, finally, are your blood.
nothing to focus one’s attention on the important thing like a giant, horned
demon with a Santa beard and penetrating, deep-set eyes.
I love and admire the
film’s depiction of Krampus too. There’s a fantastic shot, set during a blizzard,
wherein Beth runs for her life in the foreground of the frame while Krampus -- this huge
hulking thing -- shadows her moves in the background, leaping from rooftop to
And when Krampus makes his
entrance at the Engel hearth, he cracks the fireplace, and emerges hunched over.
When he rears up and extends to full height, it’s a terrifying moment. Krampus is one scary dude.
respect, as well, the way that Krampus attempts to defy convention by
engineering awful demises for the film’s children and family members.
A jack in
the box swallows a child whole (sneakers last…).
The aforementioned soda guzzler gets yanked
up a dark chimney.
encounters a pack of gruesome, masked elves and is forcibly ejected from the family living room..
The film and filmmakers have terrific fun with the twisted Christmas
imagery, and the deeply disturbing winter wonderland background too.
will see the film’s resolution -- set over the pit of Hell -- as a cop-out. I admit that was my first thought, as
But the film’s final imagery
suggest a not-so happy or clear-cut ending.
the family is now a Christmas decoration in Hell, or at the very least, Krampus
will be watching the Engels to make certain they remain true to the spirit of
Christmas, and don’t relapse into their conspicuous consumption or participation in the partisan
I prefer the second alternative there, because it honors Max’s choice in
the last act.
Without giving too much
away, let’s just say that the lad acts according to the best “spirit” of Christmas,
showcasing self-sacrifice and personal responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame others for his unhappiness,
or love things more than he loves the people in his family. To adopt a cliche, he comes to understand the real meaning of Christmas.
I look back at a film like Gremlins (1984), I think of the
humor, the scares, and the heart embodied in its text.
Krampus possesses all the same
The scenes with the attacking
Gingerbread Men boast the same wicked ingenuity you might expect to find in the
works of a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi. I’m glad the film doesn’t strive too much to
be “real,” and makes room for such silly boogeymen.
For me, Krampus is the whole, twisted horror package, and I loved
every sharp-edged, fantastic minute of it.
Last year a this time, I tried explaining to my son, Joel, the idea of ordering items
from a catalog.
explained that it’s like ordering something from Amazon.com, only your choices
are more limited, you can’t buy the items online, and you have to wait longer
to receive your toy.
didn’t see the appeal.
when I was growing up, it was tremendously exciting to order from a catalog, or
I should say from one catalog in particular.
year, Sears sent out a mammoth Christmas catalog or “Wish Book,” a hugely fat inventory of everything it sold, from
appliances and clothes to toys galore.
of the Wish Books that I’m remembering today -- from the year 1979 -- was
illustrated with the tag-line “Where
America Shops For Value.”
value, I just wanted space toys.
1979 Sears Wishbook Catalog had ‘em too.
Page 613 thru 620 in that catalog, there was everything a 1970s space-kid could
possibly desire: toys fromMego’s Micronauts, Buck Rogers in the 25th
Century, Star Wars, and Star Trek too. There were models, play-sets, toy action figures…the
the great thing about Sears was that it not only offered toys you could find
elsewhere, it also offered exclusive toys, like the Star Wars knock-off
playset called “The Star Fortress” (seen on page 617). I’ve covered this toy before on the blog, but
the giant fold-out space base has a position of honor in my home office to this
Sears exclusive from the same era (although it may have been first sold in 1978…)
was the Star Wars “The Cantina Adventure Set” (not to be confused with
the Creature Cantina). The legend in the
catalog read “If you stop at this
cantina, watch out for strangers.”
diorama of the exterior of the Mos Eisely drinking hole came with four new Kenner
action figures that were unavailable elsewhere: Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man,
and Blue Snaggletooth. The Blue
Snaggletooth has become a highly-prized collectible.
me knowing, my Mom ordered me the Cantina Adventure Set, and I loved it.
I kept it intact until about two years ago
when the diorama base finally ripped. But it’s the item I remember most from the catalog.
After I received the toy in the mail, I would
play adventures with Sheriff Snaggletooth and Deputy Hammerhead. They’d drive the land speeder around Mos
Eisely, catching the gangsters Greedo and Walrus Man.
in the 1970s I loved coming home from school and finding in the mail either the
next week’s issue of TV Guide (so I could see if Star
Trek or Space:1999 was playing…), but it was a day of absolute delight and toy nirvana when the
Wish Book arrived.
still remember the feel and scent of the Wish Book catalog's pages. I remember poring over those toy pages too, imagining adventures with Buck Rogers, the Micronauts, the Cantina, and that Space Fortress...