KRAMPUS. As hard-bitten a misanthrope as I may seem, I am actually a raging secular humanist (loathe as I am to adopt that over-used and thus ever-less meaningful phrase). I've worked directly with people long enough to have become jaded, bitter, generally disillusioned. In my heart of hearts, though, I secretly assume positive intent, even when I know I'm wrong; I give people the benefit of the doubt. In the absence of faith or religion, I suppose that impulse is my spirit of the season. And maybe it is why, beside my predilection for cinematic ultra-violence and crime sagas and depictions of humanity's baser impulses, I hold a special place for Christmas movies. Yet a more special place for violent Christmas movies, this attributable to a lifetime of Noels defined equally by the delectable treats coming out of the kitchen and the soothing strains of Die Hard and The Long Kiss Goodnight in the background. The sign in the dining room reads, "Remember, as far as anyone knows we are a nice, normal family."
Christmas movies conjure happy sense memories, a psychological cocoon of tree smell and twinkle lights, stockings hung by the chimney with care — the whole goddamn thing. They fit not only with my sentimentality about this time of year, but also with my firm belief in the power of cinema. Few things can transport one as effectively as a well-appointed Christmas movie. Before we all join hands, though, it is worth noting that I've still got on my armor of cynicism and diminished hope for the species (I much prefer Bad Santa to The Santa Clause). So I was well-placed to receive the gift of Krampus.
The opening shots of a near riot in a department store are an immediate tip-off to the movie's tone. Shoppers with 1,000-yard stares gnash their teeth and trade blows, trampling each other and destroying the very gifts they covet. The sequence is a wordless, ingenious indictment of the corruption and commercialization of the season. The camera makes its way languidly through the fray, past the blackened eyes and tears, and comes to rest on two boys locked in a particularly vicious struggle. One of them is Max (Emjay Anthony, who impressed in Chef), our protagonist, so firm in his belief in Christmas that he's willing to fight somebody bigger than him for telling some younger kids Santa isn't real. Max's parents, Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) rush in, separating the combatants before heading home. Their house, gloriously bedecked, filled with Sarah's culinary craftsmanship, will become the setting for most of the movie to follow. And, like the department store of the opening, it is a symbol of the movie's themes. The place is gorgeous: spacious, well-lit, beautifully decorated, a dream house nestled in a winter wonderland. Inside, though, everyone is in emotional disarray. Tom is distracted by work, Sarah feels distanced from him. Max's older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) just wants to go to her boyfriend's house. The family is splintered without realizing it. Max takes comfort in the presence of his paternal grandmother, Omi (Krista Stadler) quietly making cookies and speaking to him in German. The arrival of Sarah's sister Linda (Alison Tolman) and her gun-nut family cues a further downward spiral. Their tomboy daughters (who, it is implied, Dad wishes were boys) taunt Max for his childish Christmas wishes. Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) denigrates Sarah's cooking and tries to drink all the booze in the house. Linda's husband, Howard (David Koechner), spouts Promise Keeper bullshit and impugns Tom's masculinity. Their dinner table conversation becomes a perfect storm of awkwardness and contempt. The anti-Christmas spirit pervades. After the meal, a power outage slows things down, and the real action of the movie begins.
Director Michael Dougherty harnesses the momentum of all the tension and negative energy accumulated in the first act and uses it to turn the narrative abruptly into darker territory. With a savvy nod to the horror-monster-comedies of the 1980s, he invades the house with a freaky menagerie of Yuletide beasties, all under the sway of the demon Krampus. The family goes to war defending itself, learning — perhaps too late — something about togetherness and the spirit of the holiday. Striking a delicate balance between comedy and horror (without bowing to gross-out convenience or hackneyed scares), Krampus becomes a cool little hybrid: an homage to a type of movie we don't really see anymore, tied up in festive ribbons. It also succeeds in examining the cynicism with which Christmas is so often charged, turning that tendency into the monster running rampant through the narrative. It's a clever trick, and a subtly played one; you might be enjoying the movie so much that you miss it. The existence of Krampus is itself something of a miracle. A modestly budgeted, deeply entertaining work of imagination with a nationwide, year-end release? And with a perfect ending, to boot? God bless us, every one. PG13. 98m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA. Ron Howard directs a 17th century whale tale about a stranded crew with Chris Hemsworth at the helm. PG13. 122m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
ROOM. A woman held prisoner in a windowless box creates a haven for her young son, who knows nothing about the outside world. Inspiring/crushing. R. 118m. MINOR.
BROOKLYN. An Irish immigrant is pulled between her roots back home and the new life and inter-cultural romance she's started with a swell Italian-American fella. PG13. 111m. MINOR.
CREED. Not just a bum from the neighborhood. The franchise makes a comeback with fine performances from Michael B. Jordan and a touching Sylvester Stallone. R. 101m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR. Animated interspecies buddy movie set in an alternate universe in which dinosaurs and humans coexist. With Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand. PG. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2. The last nail in the franchise's coffin is so dull you may have to fight your way to the exits. PG13. 136m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE LETTERS. A dramatic portrait of Mother Theresa through notes to a priest pen pal. PG. 119m. BROADWAY.
LOVE THE COOPERS. A pile-up of talented actors (John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei) in a wreck of a holiday-family-dysfunction comedy that takes itself too seriously. PG13. 107m. BROADWAY.
THE MARTIAN. Ridley Scott directs Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut in a compelling and life-affirming space drama. PG13. 141m. BROADWAY.
THE NIGHT BEFORE. Seth Rogen leads his bros Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie in a fun and funny drug-fueled holiday comedy about being a dude, growing up late and the joy of cameos. R. 101m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE PEANUTS MOVIE. Snoopy and the gang put their enormous heads together again for this animated feature. G. 93m. BROADWAY.
SECRET IN THEIR EYES. This adaptation of the Argentinian thriller showcases powerful actors (Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman) but loses steam. PG13. 111m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SPECTRE. Daniel Craig returns for more sharp-suited globe trotting and plot foiling with nods to classic Bond films. Innovative action but heavy on the soul searching. PG13. 148m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
SPOTLIGHT. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton in an unassuming, powerful movie about the journalists who uncovered the sexual abuse and systematic cover-ups in the Catholic Church. R. 101m. MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill