KRAMPUS – Douglas Pipes
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Having grown up in the UK, Christmas for me has always been a time of joyous innocence, especially for children. Religious considerations aside, the season is dominated by the figure of Santa Claus, that jolly, rosy-cheeked old fellow who drives a magical sleigh pulled by reindeer and brings presents to children who are on his ‘good list’. Not much thought is given here to what happens to those on the ‘naughty list’, but that’s not the case in other parts of the world. In the Netherlands, for example, there is Zwarte Piet, who accompanies Santa around the world, and while the big guy is handing out gifts to the good kids, he is flogging the bad ones with a rod of birch twigs. Then, in the German-speaking areas of Austria and Switzerland, there is Krampus: a terrifying demon-like creature with cloven hooves and the horns of a goat, who carries chains, bells, and a sack on his back, into which he puts naughty children, so that he can eat them later, or transport them to Hell. The new film Krampus transposes this legend to contemporary America, and tells the story of a dysfunctional family who are forced to do battle with Krampus when he comes to visit… The comedy-horror is directed by Michael Dougherty and stars Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, and Emjay Anthony.
The score for Krampus is by the outstanding young American composer Douglas Pipes, another entry on my infamous list of composers whose immense talent demands that he should be scoring more films than he is. His previous two high profile efforts, Monster House in 2006 and Trick ‘r Treat in 2009, were both remarkable works that blended elements of comedy and horror with a tremendous dramatic sense, mastery of the orchestra, and some beautiful thematic writing, and Krampus is very much more of the same. Whereas Trick ‘r Treat played around with the musical conventions of Halloween, Krampus has fun with the sounds of Christmas. The score is an absolute delight from start to finish, and is very clever in the way Pipes takes elements from several different traditional Christmas carols, breaks them down into musical fragments, and then blends them with his own orchestral ideas. It is written for a full orchestra and choir (which sings, chants, and makes terrible groaning noises, as required) and combines some lovely seasonal thematic writing with rampaging action sequences.
After a chilly, unsettling opening in “A Cold Wind,” where voices cleverly mimic the sound of an oncoming winter storm, Pipes engages in some gentle family-style comedy caper music in “Dear Santa” and “Family Reunion,” a pair of light and twinkly cues full of Christmas cheer and more than a hint of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in the celesta-heavy orchestrations. Rattling percussion – mainly chains and sleigh bells – are important elements of orchestration that run through the entire score too. Because the Krampus of legend carries both objects, they both become malevolent markers for his presence in the music; there are subtle allusions right from the opening cue, and much more overt placements in later cues like “Bells, Bones and Chains,” “Into the Storm,” “Elfen,” and “Cloven.”
The score has two main themes, one of which embodies the Krampus character, one of which embodies the kinder spirit of Christmas, and both of which are introduced in “The Wish.” The Krampus motif first appears around the 1:08 mark, and is a menacing motif for cellos and basses which gradually grows into a malevolent brass fanfare. The theme tends to allude to Krampus’s lurking presence, his mythology, and sometimes accompanies his physical appearance; it plays on deep dark strings in the unsettling “Bells, Bones and Chains,” on higher register violins in “Christmas Angels” and “Elegy,” on faraway pianos in “Unholy Night” and “Naughty,” and in several other cues besides.
The second main theme will likely be more familiar, as it is a statement of the famous 4-note ostinato from Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych’s ‘Shchedryk’, better known in the west as “Carol of the Bells”. “Carol of the Bells” has been associated with Christmas since the 1930s when American choral director Peter Wilhousky gave it its now-famous English lyrics, and as such its appearance here is a clever one, especially considering Krampus’s own predilection for campanology. As opposed to the Krampus motif, the Carol motif is more concerned with emphasizing the ‘light’ of Christmas fighting back against the forces of darkness, and really starts to assert itself more in the score’s second half, playing off the Krampus motif at the end of “Season’s Eatings” and in “All Through the House,” before coming to full fruition in “Creatures Are Stirring” where it appears as an energetic action rhythm.
In general, Pipes’s action and horror music is superb. In cues like “Bells, Bones and Chains,” “Christmas Angels,” the brutal “The Snow Beast,” “Unholy Night,” “Seasons Eatings,” “Naughty,” “The Shadow of St. Nicholas,” and “Cloven,” he assaults the listener with wild, Goldenthal-esque wailing trombones, shrieking strings, violent percussion rhythms, deafening explosions of dissonance, and unsettling chanting voices, which whisper, chant, and sometimes actually sing in German. Pipes engages in some extended periods of string-led tension and rattling flute textures in “All Through the House” and “Der Klown,” before emerging into a full-on orchestral assault in “Elfen,” taking more parts from the Carol of the Bells motif, interpolating them into the action material, and having the choir begin to sing the first Teutonic variation on the lyric ‘gruss vom Krampus’ over and over again in a great, galumphing march.
Some of the instrumental textures and performance ideas in these cues are great. I especially love the thrumming basses at the end of “Bells, Bones and Chains;” the softly cooing choir which combines with suspenseful orchestral chords to create a real atmosphere of dread in “Into the Storm;” the unusually soothing and seemingly out-of-place woodwinds in the middle of “Unholy Night;” and the Christopher Young/Hellraiser-esque explosions of brass in “Sacrifice”.
Furthermore, in every score Pipes writes, he throws in an absolutely stunning theme that seemingly comes out of nowhere. In Trick ‘r Treat it was the haunting cello lament for the dead children caught up in “The Halloween School Bus Massacre”. In Krampus, it’s the striking elongated setting of the Krampus theme in “Omi’s Story,” a gorgeous duet for solo cello and piano that gradually becomes more lyrical and tragic as it develops, eventually reaching Schindler’s List-esque heights of sorrow and regret. When the children’s choir comes in during the piece’s second half, offsetting the theme with a vocal performance of “Silent Night,” the effect is simply magical.
Speaking of carols, as I mentioned earlier, Pipes interpolates them throughout his score, and it’s fun playing ‘spot the melody’. I noticed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in “Family Reunion;” lovely performances of both “Auld Lang Syne” and “Oh Christmas Tree” on a solo piano in the cues of the same name; a carnival-style perversion of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in “Creatures are Stirring’” and several additional settings of “Silent Night,” including a brief allusion at the end of “The Wish,” on a tinkling music box in “Bells, Bones and Chains,” on distorted strings in “The Snow Beast” and “Der Klown,” and as an angelic lament in “Sacrifice.”
Everything wraps up in the end credits piece, “Gruss vom Krampus,” a 5-minute summation of the score’s main ideas, running through an extended performance of the Carol of the Bells motif with the choir singing the German lyrics, a lush and almost romantic variation of the Krampus motif, a rich and powerful return to the magical version of the Krampus theme from “The Wish,” and a fleeting statement of the playful Nutcracker music and God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, before finishing with the wonderful “Krampus Karol of the Bells,” a traditional setting of the familiar Carol melody, but with brand new lyrics encouraging children to behave… or else.
For those with a predilection for slightly twisted versions of classic cinematic tropes, Krampus will tick all the right boxes. Douglas Pipes has crafted a truly outstanding score which takes all the familiar seasonal stereotypes – carols, choirs, sleigh bells – and subverts them with a barrage of orchestral bravado, stylish suspense and horror passages, and a great big humorous twinkle in his eye. This is the third score in a row where I have gone out of my way to praise Pipes for his outstanding work, and I hope beyond hope that this time my praises can go some small way to impressing on people just what a talented composer he is, and how he should have more than three ‘mainstream’ films in nine years to his name. Thanks to Pipes and Krampus, this will be a very scary Christmas… quiet, now, I think he’s here! Aaaaargh!!
Buy the Krampus soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- A Cold Wind (0:47)
- Dear Santa (1:17)
- Family Reunion (4:19)
- Auld Lang Syne (1:16)
- The Wish (2:41)
- Special Delivery (0:36)
- Bells, Bones, and Chains (4:43)
- ‘Tis the Season (1:05)
- Into the Storm (2:40)
- Christmas Angels (1:35)
- The Snow Beast (4:01)
- Unholy Night (4:32)
- Oh Christmas Tree (1:20)
- Season’s Eatings (4:32)
- Omi’s Story (3:33)
- Naughty (1:57)
- All Through the House (8:54)
- Creatures Are Stirring (5:11)
- Der Klown (2:09)
- Elfen (3:000
- Elegy (0:54)
- The Shadow of St. Nicholas (2:09)
- Sacrifice (3:52)
- When the Christmas Spirit Dies (1:19)
- Cloven (4:16)
- The Bell (1:07)
- End Credits: Gruss vom Krampus (5:09)
- Krampus Karol of the Bells (3:03) – DIGITAL BONUS CUE
Running Time: 81 minutes 58 seconds
La-La Land Records/Backlot Music (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Douglas Pipes. Orchestrations by Jon Kull, Peter Boyer, Brian Satterwhite and Edward Trybek. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Oliver Hug. Album produced by Douglas Pipes.