Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 6

Krampus (2015)

Like most Americans, I was introduced to the Krampus thanks to the internet. (This Kindertrauma post from 2007 is the earliest reference I can recall.) A beloved tradition in some Alpine countries, the Western hemisphere has enthusiastically adopted the Christmas demon as its own over the last half-decade. St. Nicolas having a demonic companion that punishes the naughty really appeals to us horror fans. It not only allows us to have a little Halloween in our Christmas but it’s a concept sanctioned by centuries of tradition. After appearing in cartoons, TV shows, video games, and comic books, the Krampus has started starring in movies. Written/directed by Michael “Trick r’ Treat” Dougherty and distributed by Universal Studios, “Krampus” is the legendary figure’s big chance to break into the mainstream.

As Christmas approaches, Max’s family gathers in his parent’s home for a holiday dinner. Yet Max isn’t exactly feeling the Christmas cheer this year. His parents’ marriage is dissolving. His teenage sister would rather spend time with her boyfriend. His white trash uncle is obnoxious, his aunt is even worst, and his cousins bully him. Only Max’s German-speaking grandmother seems to like him. He has lost his faith in Christmas. In his despair, he tears up his note to Santa Claus. This action summons Krampus, the demonic inverse of Saint Nicholas. An incredible blizzard descends on the suburban neighborhood and the family is beset by Krampus and his monstrous helpers.

There’s a reason most modern Christmas movies don’t work for me. If you’re going to make a film about this holiday, you have to approach with either utmost sincerity or do a total piss-take. Either really discuss the spirit of the season, like “Miracle on 34th Street,” or massacre the whole thing, like “Gremlins.” Attempts to half-ass it, like most modern Christmas comedies, just annoy me. Despite being a horror film, “Krampus” is a genuine reflection on the holiday, on the war between sincerity and cynicism. It opens with a slow motion montage of shoppers beating each other up at Christmas sales. Max’s family treat each other awfully. They squabble, bully, and insult one another. When Max turns his back on Santa Claus, he turns his back on love, belief, and the spirit of giving. The act of giving up is what summons Krampus and his army of monsters. The demon puts the family through hell but he winds up reuniting them. The horror scenario has them putting aside their differences and realizing how important they are to each other. Though “Krampus” delights in subverting the iconography of the holiday, its heart is one-hundred percent earnest.

Those looking for holiday horror action definitely won’t be disappointed in “Krampus.” There are few classic Christmas images the movie doesn’t pervert. You’ve got creepy snowmen, acting as silent sentries. There’s a quartet of killer toys. Though the knife-crazy robot and toothy teddy bear aren’t bad, the owl-winged doll is probably my favorite. The jack-in-the-box that swallows victims whole like a boa constrictor is hideously grotesque and probably gets the most screen time. A sequence in the attic, where the toys attack, is chaotic in the best way, the film utilizing each of the toys’ abilities in clever ways. Maybe my favorite sequence involves an army of chattering, demented, murderous gingerbread men. A sequence involving a nail gun and a shotgun goes stretches to hilarious limits. The scene was obviously inspired by “Gremlins” and actually gives me hope that a modern “Gremlins" movie could work.

By the time the elves show up, the movie has descended into beautiful, absolute Christmas mayhem. When the titular beast appears, he’s actually been slightly overshadowed by his legion of helpers. Further proof that “Krampus” was made by true horror fans is its reliance on practical effects over CGI. Aside from those giggling gingerbread men, all the monsters are brought to life through make-up and puppetry. The elves are portrayed as diminutive monsters wearing creepy, unmoving wooden mask. Though I would’ve appreciated a more traditional take on Krampus, the design still makes an impression. The huge curving horns, hunched back, and face like an evil Santa are a nice touch.

“Krampus” is an ensemble film and makes great use of that cast. Though he gets sixth billing, Emjay Anthony stars as Max. As a young performer, he shows a lot of talent. Adam Scott reprises that amazing dry wit of his as the slightly stiff father figure. Toni Collette plays the mother with some real humanity that develops into a likable tough streak. David Koechner, as usual, steals the show as the loud-mouth uncle who also, somehow, grows into a real human being. Stefania LeVei Owen as the older sister has a nice, nontraditional look and could develop into an interesting scream queen. Yet my favorite is Krista Stadler as Omi, the grandmother. Without speaking English for most of the film, she works nicely as both a warm and loving grandmother and a grave knower of evil.

Though not an anthology film like “Trick r’ Treat,” “Krampus” is still somewhat structured like an anthology film. Each monstrous minion of the Krampus gets a set piece devoted to them. There’s even a stop-motion sequence, providing the monster’s back story, which combines stop-motion and shadow puppet cut-outs. One moment devoted to some unseen creature in the snow works very nicely as well. There’s one problem with “Krampus” though. It has too many endings. After reaching the logical conclusion, a moment similar to the flashback, Max confronts Krampus personally. Next, the film seems to be going for the “It was all a dream!” ending. There’s another incoming twist though, before the film finally ends. The movie deviates from the traditional Krampus mythology a little too much for my taste.

Despite some issues, “Krampus” is still a blast. The cast is well utilized, the special effects are great, and the movie has the right balance of ghoulish fun and genuine heart. There are other Christmas horror movies I like better but there are few that pack in this much holiday horror madness. For those reasons and more, “Krampus” is very likely to become an annual tradition in my household. How many Christmas wishes would it take to get the Yule Cat or Père Fouettard movies next? [8/10]

I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003)

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is such an established classic, even getting annual showings to this day, that it’s not shocking the right-holders would attempt to replicate its success. “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” came in 1992. “I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown” came in 2003. Maybe because that original special is so good and so popular, none of these follow-up attempts have caught on. Here’s an alternate theory for why these specials are quickly forgotten: They’re not very good.

Despite the title, this special does not revolve around Charlie Brown. Instead, Rerun, Linus and Lucy’s toddler little brother, is the main character. Rerun desires a dog for Christmas, spending a lot of time trying to convince his siblings he can handle the responsibility. Eventually, Snoopy’s brother Spike comes to visit and Rerun has hopes of adopting him. In the interim, the toddler has adventures riding on his mom’s bike, getting expelled from kindergarten, and appearing in the school Christmas play. Meanwhile, Lucy attempts to win over Schroder and Sally considers her own Christmas list.

“I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown” is directly adapted from Charles Schulz’ comic strips, to the point that he’s the only credited writer on the special. This lends an incredibly choppy, episodic feel to the short. There’s no defined story, as the script meanders from one set pieces to another. All of these sequences are structured like comic strips. After a bit of dialogue or an event or two, there’s a punchline. Rinse and repeated. Unfortunately, the strips adapted here due not represent Schulz’ best work. Entirely too much of the special is made up of Rerun bemoaning his mother’s bicycling skills or Lucy attempting to win over Schroder. (You’d think after like forty years of this shit, she would’ve given up.) Because it’s so focused on this incredibly scrambled set-up, a narrative through line never truly emerges.

After Spike shows up, things get a little better. The scenes of Rerun and the beagle bonding are cute. So are earlier moments, when the kid tries to bond with Snoopy. Even then, the brief forty-minute film wanders off-topic. We’re treated to long scenes of Spike in his desert home or Snoopy dressing as Santa. (The latter element provides most of the special’s Christmas-y elements.) The special has a moral, that you should only adopt a dog when you can handle the responsibilities, which is a very noble message to send. Otherwise though, “I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown” is entirely forgettable. Stick with the original, and best, Peanuts Christmas special. [5/10]

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