There has always been a dark undercurrent to Christmas; for every touching story of charity, we are (at least as Americans) constantly reminded of the selfish, ugly commercialism in which people indulge during the holidays. Everyone is party to it because “stuff” is fun, but when it undermines the reasons for the season (charity, togetherness, etc.), it becomes a problem. If Saint Nicholas, or Santa, represents the purest, most charitable embodiment of Christmas, then the Krampus, his Alpine folkloric counterpoint, represents the opposite. He does not come to make people happy, he comes to punish those who have forgotten the spirit of Christmas. He does not come to give, but to take.
These themes are explored in the new film, Krampus, brought to us by Michael Dougherty who is best known for directing another seminal holiday film, 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat. Opening with a montage of crazed shoppers storming a store, the film’s intentions are immediately apparent. It seeks to deconstruct the overt, false positivity prevalent during the holiday season and explore the seldom-acknowledged malice that exists under that glossy yuletide veneer.
This particular tale focuses on Max, played by Emjay Anthony (Chef), a young boy who is struggling to accept the less jolly reality of Christmas that comes with growing older. His mother, Sarah (played by the always great Toni Collette) and father, Tom (a refreshingly serious Adam Scott) are part of a marriage whose spark has cooled. Their problems are compounded by the arrival of Sarah’s sister, Linda (Allison Tolman of Fargo fame) and her insufferable family, led by her husband, Howard (played to an Uncle Eddie extreme by David Koechner). Max’s only source of comfort is his Austrian grandmother, Omi (played with an understated warmth by Krista Stadler). However, despite Omi’s presence, Max’s house quickly turns into a familial nightmare. Despairing of his situation and angry at what Christmas has become, Max tears up his letter to Santa and casts it to the wind.
Soon after, a freak snowstorm rolls in, causing an electrical blackout and bathing the neighborhood in frigid, supernatural darkness. Though initially unmoved by the strange weather, as the hours roll on it becomes clear that something wicked lingers in the darkness outside their house. When people start to go missing, the tension mounts and everyone slowly realizes the implications of the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves. What follows is a story of survival, one in which Max and his family must come together in order to survive the coming of the Krampus and his freakish, perversions of Christmas staples. From toys to snow, nothing is free from the Krampus’ dark influence. With tight pacing and an unnerving slew of monsters, the Krampus makes Christmas horrific in an entertaining and compelling way.
Krampus, on an acting level, rides mainly upon the shoulders of Emjay Anthony who already showed his inherent charisma in last year’s indie darling, Chef. He ably carries the heart of Krampus, striking all of the right emotional beats and really making the audience want him to survive the film’s terrifying ordeals. He along with the supporting cast do a superb job of treating the material with the utmost respect, embracing the absurdity and danger of the story rather than playing their situation for laughs. If anything, Krampus can be likened to the works of Joe Dante (Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Small Soldiers), from whom Dougherty clearly draws inspiration. Like Dante, Dougherty and company have managed to take the possibly silly and make it decidedly unnerving and even horrific at times. Much credit is due to the effects department, which succeeded in creating an array of alarming and perverse reimaginings of Christmas hallmarks, including a fanged teddy bear, a snake-tongued angel, and most disturbingly of all, a maw-toothed jack-in-the-box with a bloated, anaconda-like body and a distending jaw that splays open to swallow people whole.
But perhaps most impressive is the Krampus himself. Cloven-hoofed, enormous, stoop-backed and trailing chains that jingle in a parody of holiday bells, the Krampus is a terrifying, iconic sight. His questing, skeletal fingers and exaggerated goat horns only serve to make his character that much more unsettling, but it’s his face that is perhaps the most memorable part of him: a withered, wisp-bearded counterpart to the red-cheeked jollity of Saint Nick; the Krampus’ cheeks are sunken, his eyes an alarming shade of red, his mouth open to emit a constant, predatory rasp. Truly, a feat of practical effects and audio wizardry, the Krampus is every bit as memorable as the slashers of the eighties or the Mogwai of Gremlins. It’s refreshing in the age of CG that a practical route was chosen for this character and the film is better for it. The threat of the Krampus is tangible and he elevates the film in every moment of the limited screen time that he has.
Beyond the impressive creature design, Krampus is also a well-directed, well-shot film with interesting camera work, cool set pieces, and a particularly memorable, animated interlude about halfway through the film. The film’s visuals are aided by composer Douglas Pipes’ memorable perversions of holiday classics, which feature creepy whisperings and subtly altered lyrics that evoke a tangible feeling of dread. The film also features Bright Eyes’ version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” another plus!
Overall, I really enjoyed Krampus. It delights the child in me that always wondered why people were so nasty to each other during a time of year dedicated to togetherness and acceptance; it serves as a reminder and a warning that perhaps we should reexamine our relationships with our families and other people and say what we’re thinking rather than bottle up years of resentment. Whether you’re an eighties kid longing to see a spiritual successor to Gremlins or just a person who wants something to acknowledge the dark side of Christmas, Krampus is for you.
Here’s hoping he skips your house this year.