Despite its rampaging monster approach to the holiday season and the imposing, sort-of terrifying giant horned goat-man who provides its title, Krampus isn’t, at heart, an anti-Christmas picture-- it has at least one bloodshot eye pitched toward seasonal classic status. The movie’s story is centered on a family at war with itself—semi-sophisticated suburbanites Adam Scott and Toni Collette and their kids hosting a clan of boorish, right-wing Walmart-warrior relatives headed up by David Koechner and Alison Tolman— who finds itself besieged by the impish and deadly forces of Krampus, the flip-side of holiday cheer, Darth Vader to Santa’s Obi-wan. When the only child left in the family who still clings to his belief in Santa Claus has the last vestiges of Christmas spirit (here so defined as the will to make sacrifices for the good of others) derided out of him, he tears up his last sincere letter to the North Pole and hurls it to the wind, where it is swept up in a wintry curl and apparently delivered straight to the frozen netherworld. It’s an invitation to Krampus, who definitely knows when you’ve been naughty and could care less that you’ve been nice, to crash the party and demand a whole lot more than his share of the wassail.
Director Michael Dougherty has already delivered a holiday classic of sorts, having directed the terrific Halloween omnibus Trick ‘R Treat (2009), and I hoped he could go two for two with another perennial here. The movie opens with a terrifically detailed, lovingly slo-mo Black Friday stampede, raising hopes that the satirical stakes would remain raised throughout. Unfortunately, the new movie doesn’t have the narrative playfulness of Trick ‘R Treat’s jumble of connections, and as a director, and the cowriter of the Krampus screenplay, Dougherty lacks the visual pop and the subversive glee that Joe Dante brought to the Gremlins party. Now, there was a movie that shared in the delight of its titular creatures' anarchy, laying waste to the lovingly fetishized small-town Christmas-y atmosphere in a way that suggested a horde of tiny Tasmanian devils wound up and turned loose in a holiday snow globe. I can’t think of a Christmas-themed film other than Gremlins that has at its center a monologue of torched mythology as bitter and twisted (and funny) as the one Phoebe Cates delivers about the night she stopped believing in Santa Claus, surely one of the most subversive moments in any mainstream American movie.
Dante’s 1984 hit has certainly inspired the template of Krampus; there are sinister snowmen that mysteriously appear in the front yard (a very nice touch that doesn’t really go anywhere) and a rampaging pack of razor-toothed gingerbread men that provide Krampus’s best balance of terror and comedy, and even then you’ll be thinking how much those killer Christmas cookies sound like gremlins. Dougherty also interrupts the onset of his own holiday mayhem for a strange reverie in which the family’s grandmother, a WWII refugee, relates her own childhood experience with the creature, whose Austrian-Bavarian mythology is proven to her to be rooted in the real world. There’s no grisly punch line a la Cates in store here, but the interlude is rendered in a mournfully eerie style of animation similar to the Laika studios style of Coraline and The Boxtrolls, which serves its otherworldly purpose but also makes you wish the whole movie would have been made this way.
Unfortunately, the heart of the matter is that apart from those little gingerbread bastards, there isn’t a lot in the way of genuine fright here either, and the movie marches rather steadily and perfunctorily along to a predictably nightmarish denouement. Krampus himself is an imposing figure, but he really doesn’t do much and, most damningly, he’s not that scary—all the real mayhem is left up to his minions, including a nifty slug-type snowman who wreaks havoc in the family attic, but sadly also including a bunch of rubbery-looking elf things who look like holdovers from Willow or Labyrinth. The movie doesn’t have the conviction of fearful mythology either—here we’re left with the suggestion that Krampus watches over us just like Santa Claus, but instead of punishment his real motivation is to inspire, through means of an illusion of terror, the sort of good behavior that Santa likes to observe and reward. For a holiday monster movie, that’s a pretty treacly, and a pretty conventional place to wind up.
Of course there are plenty of other Christmas movie treats available to warm your cockles as the holiday approaches, and if you live in the Los Angeles area you can see many of them on the big screen. For the most irreverent of holiday revelers, the Egyptian Theater and the American Cinematheque is pulling out a double bill of Scrooged and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on December 18, Frank Capra’s essential holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on December 19, and the Christmas-oriented shoot-‘em-up pairing of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) on Sunday, December 20. (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation provides the other unacknowledged comic template for Krampus, and pound for pound it might just match it for scares too.)
Over at the Cinematheque’s Aero Theater in Santa Monica there’s a slightly more traditional bent, with a double-up of White Christmas (1954) and Holiday Inn (1942) on December 18 and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on December 20, sandwiching the Santa-rrific one-two punch of Elf (2003) and Bad Santa (2003) on December 19.
The Cinefamily is providing multiple chances to see It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen, with showings on December 19, 21, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the theater also lives up to its reputation as the alternative cinephile experience by also offering up Arnaud Desplechin’s acidic, unsentimental portrait of a holiday family gathering A Christmas Tale (2008) starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni, thus providing the real spike in the more traditional holiday nog.
And following the Cinefamily right off the usual holiday rails, the New Beverly Cinema has programmed Christmas week with a bunch of unexpected holiday-themed treasures, many of which are definitely not among the first to occur to most programmers of repertory Christmas fare. They start on Monday, December 21, with a nifty pairing of Daryl Duke’s rarely screened, Christmas-set and very nasty thriller The Silent Partner (1978; written by Curtis Hanson) with John Frankenheimer’s also Christmas-set Reindeer Games (2000). And speaking of nasty, the New Bev’s annual screening of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which beat John Carpenter’s Halloween to the holiday punch (or the slash) by four years, paired with the decidedly less effective Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), commences on Tuesday, December 22. The following night, December 23, the New Beverly showcases a double feature of the none-too-beloved Christmas comedies Trapped in Paradise (1994) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s materialist holiday carol Jingle All The Way (1996), with Christmas Eve saved for another appearance by Detective John McClane providing relief for besieged office workers in Die Hard, this time paired up with Sydney Pollack’s wintry CIA thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975), taking you right up to midnight and leaving just enough time to get home and set out the milk and cookies for Santa, or the bear trap for Krampus, whatever the case may be.
If you’re not geographically able to take advantage of any of this bounty of holiday screenings playing in Los Angeles, if you live in a city where either a repertory theater or a film society hangs its shingle make sure to check their schedules. There’s likely a chance you too could see some of what’s on the plate here, and maybe even other delights that have escaped these eagle-eyed programmers, projected on a big screen near you.
And if you’re dependent, as most of us are, on our home theaters to provide the audio visual holiday cheer, don’t despair. Most of the titles noted above are available on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming services, so you can set up your own film festival by the twinkling multicolored light of your Christmas tree. Here’s some additional suggestions that none of the repertory programmers mentioned above made room for which would go great on any Christmas movie list.
Harold Ramis’s caustic crime thriller The Ice Harvest (2005) is Trapped in Paradise—John Cusack is a sleazy lawyer trying to make it out of Wichita with a bagful of stolen cash during an ice storm-- as a tag team of Don Siegel and the Coen Brothers might have envisioned it.
Steven Spielberg’s brilliant big-scale farce 1941 (1979) takes place in the days just after December 7 of that year and mixes its satire on American can-do jingoism with plenty of anarchic holiday spirit. The extended version, out now on Blu-ray, features tree farmer Hollis P. Wood (Slim Pickens) being attacked by a horde of Japanese sailors dressed as Christmas trees!
Overlooked by almost every source I could find this year recommending Christmas viewing, Ted Demme’s The Ref (1994) must now qualify as at least potentially forgotten, a nasty comedy more in the vein of Desplechin than Capra that devastates the holiday family gathering scenario with vicious relish.
The most traditional of my choices, Mitchell Leisen’s splendid Remember the Night (1940), from a script by Preston Sturges, sends shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck and her courtroom prosecutor, Fred MacMurray, on a Christmas trip to visit relatives, hers and his. The movie beautifully balances Sturges’ peerless wit with Leisen’s talent for finding the undercurrent of pain beneath the familial pull. Around our house, this is a traditional yearly treasure.
And easily the movie that most encompasses the relentless cheer, the mania, the materialism, the sentiment and, of course, the gleeful immolation of everything good and sane and delightful that Christmas stands for, has to be A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011). If you can somehow see it in 3D, please do— along with Piranha 3D it uses the stereoptic technology to greater ends that just about any movie of the modern 3D era. But even flat it’s still a raunchy riot. Watch this one and Remember the Night back to back for a guaranteed merry Christmas.
Hats off as well to the “All Through the House” segment of Tales from the Crypt (1972-vintage, if you please), hands-down the creepiest murderous Santa story ever filmed. Ho-ho-ho!