Growing up through over a decade of John Hughes movies set the tone for films in much of my childhood. Hughes films are among the most popular and widely known between the 80s and early 90s. His greatest achievements ranged from “The Breakfast Club”, “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off“, “National Lampoon’s Vacation“, “Weird Science” and “Home Alone”. These were films that were unavoidable. They were widely discussed, often a point of pop culture reference and in the general consciousness of the average American throughout their popularity. In 1990, every kid below the age of 16 was throwing their hands on their face to let out a holler because Mackaulay Culkin did it on screen. These weren’t the only films that stood out to me, but his were among some of the most memorable. Later on I would grow to enjoy different genres from horror to slapstick comedy and even drama. In retrospect, across the many genres I enjoyed while growing up they all had a few things in common. These films had compelling storylines, evocative soundtracks and real-world objects driving their protagonists
These were the kinds of movies you could watch over and over just as I did as a child. In fact, I might be unfairly biased because they were so present and influential in my life. Dad might be reading the paper and mom studying for school but there would always be a Batman movie or “Beetlejuice”, “Short Circuit” or “Jurassic Park” playing in the background; my sister and I a captive audience. Perhaps with the reality of adulthood in full-force, I don’t recognize these attributes quite the same as I did in my childhood. I am less engaged as an adult. The whimsical feeling, I had as a child rarely comes over me and when it does, it’s a familiar throwback and welcome treat. I don’t think these traits have been lost in modern film but somehow I find much of what I’ve watched in recent years less interesting.
Last year, at a chance encounter I was reminded of this very sentiment. A few short weeks before Christmas I found myself in a movie theater enjoying a rather unique film. The movie, “Krampus“, was one I knew little about going in. I knew the genre of the film to be horror and knew a little of the lore around the goat-demon hybrid that was the anti-santa called Krampus. I was aware that writer/director Michael Doherty was the same film maker who brought us “Trick ‘R Treat“ back in 2007. I often avoid big theatrical releases as of late because I’ve become disappointed with the linear and rather predictable path many movies take to reach their end. I also have acknowledged Hollywood’s increased reliance on visual effects to create the mood. In addition, the horror genre seems to produce only a few gems between releases so it was by a roll of the dice I ended up seeing the film in the first place. “Krampus“ was a rare delight in an age of overused computer generated imagery and formulaic storytelling. I left the theater feeling a sense of nostalgia hearkening back to my child and teen years as it struck many of the same chords the films of my childhood did. I couldn’t immediately assess why I felt this way but I liked the movie enough that I recently pulled the trigger on a digital purchase and watched it again. It was then, upon my second viewing in my home that I realized a few key details that evoked my kid memories.
“Krampus” is far from a perfect film, as a matter of fact, when friends have asked me what I think of it, I’ve described it as a “solid six” on a scale of one to ten. Not exactly a glowing review, but let’s keep in mind this is a “horror” film. Now let me stop right there and explain – It is a horror film in the way that 80s movies like Gremlins straddled the line between horror and comedy. It is really horror/comedy. You could only fairly critique it as horror if it were edited without some of the goofy quips and cheesy dialogue that give it character traits placing it somewhere between one genre and the other. Having this attribute and this sort of character however, is exactly what made it stand out. This, along with some of its well written jokes, its use of [mostly] practical effects and its soundtrack and design it became clear what the film was offering, steeped in a history of nostalgia going back decades before it. Listening to the eerie re-imagining of the holiday song “Silent Night” while catching a brief glimpse of “Krampus“ brought me back to a scene in “Gremlins” where the mischievous creatures first became a threat to the Peltzer family. In another scene, a giant clown-faced jack in the box opens its mouth first vertically and then horizontally to reveal a huge gaping jaw, lined with razor sharp teeth; somehow sparking a memory of sandworms from “Beetlejuice”. “Krampus” is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I that’s what I love about it.
If I look back at many of my favorite movies growing up, much of them have this in common. In 1996, Eddie Murphy played Sherman Klump in “The Nutty Professor”. Directed by Tom Shadyac, the film was in the same vein as Shadyac’s other hits like Liar Liar starring Jim Carrey. What the two films have in common besides being comedies; they rely heavily on the audience willfully going along for the journey and foregoing any foothold in reality. They both have a compelling protagonist and neither film takes itself too seriously. They fundamentally pull the audience so far out of the norm that laughter becomes a gut response, occasionally tugging just enough of our heart strings to keep us empathetic to the main characters. It’s that combination of a goofy premise, some slapstick humor and a cartoonish simple story-line that made both films so likable among audiences.
Looking back to my teen years this wasn’t unique to comedy/horror or the comedy genre alone. One of my favorite films in the 90’s was the Tim Burton classic “Edward Scissorhands“; categorized as a romance drama. Again, this is a film that requires the audience suspend some level of belief to go on a journey with a protagonist who has scissors in place of fingers. We are led to believe that Edward was abandoned upon his ‘creators’ death in a mansion above a cookie-cutter housing development in suburbia, only to be brought into town by the local Avon lady who finds him during her door to door sales pitch. This is another example of a quirky storyline that works wonderfully when paired with the superstar talent of then budding actors Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder. Moments of sincere humility paired with the start of a romance and a theme of acceptance create a world where the audience feels something for a character that by all real-world accounts could not exist. The audience feels something because it’s a fantasy backed by a surrealist, exaggerated version of the suburban California towns many Americans saw cropping up all over the place in the 80’s. For all of its elements of fiction, there was a nuanced but very real sense of homogenized suburban life that was relatable. Pair that with the emotive music styling of Danny Elfman and you’ve got a dark modern classic.
The music holds a place so important in these films. You can’t watch “Home Alone” more than twice without the main theme sticking in your head when Kevin wishes his family would ‘all just disappear.’ You can’t forget the “Edward Scissorhands” moment when Edward does the ice dance with Kim, signifying the height of their connection. Try as you may, you can’t dismiss the sadness on Professor Klumps face when Dave Chappelle as “Reggie Warrington” tears into him at the comedy show during dinner in “The Nutty Professor”. These are the elements that keep the movies I’ve mentioned static in my memory. For some films it’s the relatable teenage angst. Others it’s the light fantasy and comedy applied to what would otherwise be horror and sometimes it is the drama and pain so quietly positioned in comedy. “Krampus”, wasn’t remarkable in any way other than that it was unique and it reminded me of the many attributes I miss from the films of my childhood. Light-hearted fun with an engaging plot, and a touch of whimsy. These are film choices that are a product of good writing, compelling music and amazing actors and real-world effects. For all of their suspension of reality, these are the things that make so many films great.