Does Krampus Cramp Horror’s Style?

krampusDoing a little research into the Krampus myth yields fascinating results.  Krampus, the mythical devil-goat-man who counters Santa, is possibly a myth that precedes Christianity.  According to a National Geographic article, Krampus was the son of the Norse goddess Hel, ruler of Helheim, the underworld.  Instead of appearing on the scene to reward good behavior, Krampus showed up with a flogging for bad behavior, and a one-way trip to his underground lair.  Of course this myth would be terrifying to children – part of the reason, experts think, that it fell out of favor in some countries.  But other European countries – like Germany and the Czech Republic – still celebrate the myth.  Krampusnacht – Krampus Night – is fast approaching on December 6th, the same day as St. Nick’s day.  So beware if you’ve been naughty this year.  A furry, horned beast might show up rap-rap-rapping on your door.

As for the movie Krampus, well, I don’t know how to categorize it, and I don’t know if the movie does complete justice to the myth’s utter and inherent creepiness.  Interestingly, Google categorizes it as fantasy/horror.  The movie director understandably chose a PG-13 rating to broaden the audience, but then, some of the scares and special effects just seem, so, well, so PG-13.  I think a movie that seeks to imperil its characters without the concomitant gore has a very different vibe than an R-rated movie – a rating which in this case may have been unnecessary, but may have been the best way to explore Krampus’s truly evil potential.  I guess I felt like if the Adams Family had a favorite family Christmas movie, they would sit by the fireside watching Krampus.  It’s certainly too scary for, say, a five-year-old, but a family of parents and adolescents could easily huddle together, watch it, and – oddly – get some laughs.

The movie begins by satirizing the American commercialization of Christmas in all its shallow and avaricious glory.  As a happy Christmas tune plays in the background, parents literally pummel each other for toys and rip things apart.  The movie transitions from this scene to the house of one family dreading a Christmas visit from their in-laws.  Toni Collette plays the mother, Sarah, and Adam Scott plays the father, Tom.  Emjay Anthony plays the son, Max, and Stefanie LaVie Owen plays the sister, Beth.  Getting along with their hearty, gun-toting, camo-wearing in-laws, headed by father Howard (David Koechner) proves a challenge, especially when a power-outage puts the families on lockdown.  But this discord provides sufficient humor for the film.  Indeed, the film seems more a parody of American families and the Christmas tradition than it does a horror film, at times.

The movie takes a long time and a lot of small-talk to get to the action, but this time isn’t completely wasted space.  During this time, endearing characters emerge out of both families, so you feel at least some attachment to the characters whose lives Krampus will threaten.  I enjoyed some of the light-hearted quips and laughter, but found myself giddy and fidgety, waiting for the much advertised arrival of ours insidious Christmas demon.

When Krampus does appear, he’s a shocking sight for unsuspecting eyes. We’re enmeshed in the story when suddenly we see a hulking black figure with long horns hunched over on a roof-top.  Loud “thumps” emanate as we see Krampus’s silhouette jump from roof to roof.  This was probably my favorite scene in the movie.  We haven’t seen the beast up close yet, but we see a distant image, and his hunched outline, complete with horns and claws, is relatively terrifying to behold.  I tend toward horror stories with ghosts, not beasts, but this was a truly excellent way to build suspense over the arrival of a mythical beast from hell.  Krampus certainly looks the part from a distance.

Unfortunately, there’s a long stretch of time before we see Krampus again.  I felt myself hungry to set my eyes on director Michael Dougherty’s vision of this clove-footed monster.  But a lot of bickering and sometimes feigned suspense separated me from another viewing of my mysterious beast.  Instead, the families become prey to a barrage of attacking toys who are Krampus’s minions.  While these toys are sufficiently creepy, I didn’t find them scary enough to darken the ambience of the already sometimes comical, light-hearted film.  The “toy scenes” looked less like the stuff of horror, and more like a comedy of errors, as little gingerbread men leapt around the kitchen, trying to attack Howard while making high-pitched squeaks.  Ultimately, though, we do see Krampus more closely.  A side-shot of his claws was particularly enticing from the horror vantage point, and reminded me of the Babdook’s fingers in The Babadook.  But on the whole, when we approach  Krampus, his face looks too manufactured to be truly scary.

The movie’s theme seemed understandably simplistic for a family-holiday-horror movie.  While the real mythic Krampus corralled bad children, this Krampus visits people who stop believing and lose hope, at least that’s what Omi, the grandmother (Krista Stadler) tells the family.  This seems incongruous.  Granted, the families bicker and complain a lot prior to Krampus’s appearance, but there’s no sense that anyone in the film is hopeless.  And even if they were, is this not a strange motive to provoke the anti-Claus into action?  To me, it makes more sense that a Christmas Demon punish bad children.  It seems unnecessary and redundant to punish the hopeless.  The movie leaves us with the somewhat hackneyed reminder that we must always “believe” – but what we should believe in is unclear.  Santa Claus?  God?  One another?  The ultimate goodness and purpose of humanity?

The ending of the movie – which, of course, I won’t reveal – leaves ample room for discussion.  Personally, I thought the ending made the entire movie less scary and was inserted to keep the vibe light and semi-family oriented.  But, the ending could be open to various sinister interpretations, and I heard people debating those interpretations on my way out of the theater.  The best way to reach a conclusion is to go see it, even if it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of truly good horror.  It’s still entertaining.

I was fascinated by the Krampus myth, and I’m glad I saw the movie.  As I watched the movie, it was more common to hear audience laughter – even during the allegedly scary scenes – than it was to hear shrieks and cries.  But for the horror lover, a theater viewing, complete with reactions from the crowd, is an excellent way to celebrate the holidays in a lightly macabre fashion.  IMDB gave Krampus a 7/10.  This seems like an apt rating.  While the movie lacked the constituents that made it a genuine horror film, it was a funny movie with an unusual ending.



Does Krampus Cramp Horror’s Style?

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