by Ashley Naftule
‘Tis the season for settling in with your loved ones, throwing a yule Vader on a roaring fire, and watching some Christmas classics. But sometimes familiarity really does breed contempt; You can only watch Jimmy Stewart standing on that bridge so many times before you want to shout “JUST JUMP ALREADY”. Here’s a double feature of holiday movies: One naughty, one nice. And no, neither of them is “Die Hard”.
The Shop Around The Corner
The OTHER great Jimmy Stewart Xmas movie. It’s not usually name-dropped when people talk about Christmas classics, because it’s not really a Xmas movie. The holidays are a backdrop for Lubitsch’s 1940 pen pal romcom. While a Christmas tree gets decorated during the film’s climax, the holidays mostly act as window-dressing and source of stress for the tight-knit staff at Matuschek and Company. There’s no Saint Nick, no last minute Christmas miracles: The only miracle is how fucking perfect the movie is.
If you want to understand just how great a movie “The Shop Around The Corner” is, go watch “You’ve Got Mail”. A remake of “Shop”, it shows off how impeccable Lubitsch’s original is by getting every single thing about it wrong. It even commits the cardinal sin of wasting Dave Chappelle and Parker Posey (“Mail” carries on the modern romcom tradition of casting supporting players who are infinitely more interesting and appealing than the actual leads).
What makes “The Shop Around The Corner” such a wonderful film is that it works as a strong ensemble picture. The love story between secret pen pals Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as bitter coworkers who are unaware that the target of their IRL scorn is also their long distance object of affection is affecting and touching, but it’s actually the B PLOT of the film. The genius of “Shop” as a love story is that the love story is pushed to the background for most of the film.
Most of “Shop” revolves around the lives of Stewart, Sullavan, and their coworkers at Matuschek and Company. Each of the characters are vividly sketched out. Characters like Felix Bressart’s timid Pirovitch and the ambitious delivery Pepi are given their time to shine, getting storylines and character growth that pay off over the course of the movie (like when the terrified-of-getting-fired Pirovitch gets Stewart’s back by standing up to their boss).
The film even lets the characters go to some dark places, like when a despondent Matuschek tries to kill himself after discovering his wife is having an affair. But for a film that includes a failed suicide attempt, it manages to maintain its spirit of warmth and optimism throughout. These are characters who are broke, afraid of losing their jobs, and are just trying to survive the holiday season, but they’re grateful to have each other’s company.
Contrast this with “Mail” where every character that isn’t Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks is paper thin, where the subplot of the local bookstore being menaced by the chain bookstore opening nearby has zero weight (to the point that the film’s “Congratulations! You’ve been gentrified, motherfuckers!” ending is supposed to be a HAPPY one), and where the only suicide attempt is happening offscreen (me, after coming to the conclusion that the endless void is preferable to another minute spent watching this Nutrasweet atrocity).
Whether you’re spending your holidays with family, friends, or curling up with a special someone, “The Shop Around The Corner” is a great way to kill an hour and a half. Full of touching scenes and hilarious character bits, it’ll give you Christmas cheer without trying to pile on so much sweetness that it gives you diabetes.
And now for something on the naughty side.
When I first saw “The Krampus”, I wasn’t expecting it to be good. I went to the theater to watch it on my birthday. A friend and I had planned on doing karaoke, but the KJ for our usual haunt was MIA so we thought watching a dumb Christmas horror movie would be a good way to kill a few hours. Neither of us expected it to be GREAT.
You can imagine my surprise to discover that Michael Dougherty’s “The Krampus” was fantastic. As genre films go, it was one of the best flicks I saw last year, skillfully blending horror and comedy into a delightful Screw-the-Holidays cocktail.
One area in which “The Krampus” really excels is at how well-developed the cast is. As I mentioned in my brief review of “Green Room” last week, most horror movies do a lousy job of creating characters that you have any connection to. If we’re not invested in their well-being, if we’re not actively rooting for their survival, where’s the thrill? If I can’t be bothered to give a shit about the people in danger, then the film is just a bunch of cheap jump scares. Tension comes from caring. We get lumps in our throats watching tightrope walkers because we DON’T want to see them fall.
“The Krampus” does a great job of upending our expectations by putting together two drastically different families (one of whom we’re obviously supposed to find obnoxious), and getting us to care about them. Even characters as initially 2-D as David Koechner’s boorish gun nut becomes sympathetic and worth caring about as the reindeer shit hits the fan. It also avoids the other classic horror movie mistake by making the characters be competent and smart. They don’t get snatched up and taken out by Krampus’ helpers by being morons; They just get overpowered or unlucky.
Special credit goes to the creature design and effects work in “Krampus”. The families are assaulted by elves, a horrifying giant Jack-In-The-Box, psychotic gingerbread men, and by a chain swinging Krampus himself. While the film never skimps on the comedy or downplays the absurdity of the plot, it also throws out visuals that are genuinely unnerving. If you changed the dialogue and toned down some of the performances, “The Krampus” could pass as a legit horror movie.
The best thing about this movie, though, is the ending. I’m about to delve into spoiler territory here, so if you haven’t watched “The Krampus” yet STOP READING. For reals. After this picture of a gingerbread man, I’m going to spoil the ever-loving hell out of this movie.
The Krampus comes to town because insufferably precocious kid Max writes Santa a not-so-jolly Christmas letter. The sole surviving member of his two families, young Max comes face to face with the Krampus and tries to talk him into bringing them all back by saying that he’s learned the true meaning of Christmas. Watching this in the theaters, I audibly groaned. Of course the movie is going to wimp out, I thought. Even a film as gleefully anarchic as this couldn’t pass up the “kid learns a lesson, so everything is alright” trope. And it seemed like it was about to… until the Krampus scooped up Max and chucked him down the same hell-hole the rest of his family vanished into.
Max learns the true meaning of Christmas and it means fuck all. He and his family end the film trapped for all eternity in a snow globe. Instead of being their salvation (as kids tend to be in all holiday movies), Max has damned them all.
That’s why “The Krampus” is my favorite anti-Christmas movie: It’s the perfect lump of coal to stick in any chipper “Elf” quoting friend’s stocking. A shot of hard rotgut dissolving in your belly, the perfect medicine for nights spent listening to your date’s She & Him Christmas mixtape.