Krampus Directed by Michael Dougherty
Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler Legendary Pictures | Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 98 minutes
Release date: December 4, 2015
Director Michael Dougherty previously took the superstitions of the Halloween season and molded them into superbly told stories for his horror anthology film Trick ’r Treat. Now, the filmmaker takes on Alpine folklore’s anti-Santa in his Christmas horror Krampus. Though it’s a while before the horned and hoofed baddie makes his on-screen appearance in the film, when he does arrive during a massive blizzard, he brings with him an unfathomable reign of terror the likes of which young Max and his family have never seen.
It’s a few days before Christmas, and Max (Emjay Anthony) is finding it hard to spread the cheer this year. After having a physical fight during a Christmas pageant, the prepubescent boy fails at getting his family to follow their usual holiday customs. He just wants things to be the way they used to be before his dad David (Adam Scott) became a busy workaholic; his mom Sarah (Toni Collette) closed herself off and became an overachieving Martha Stewart type; and his stereotypically distant teen sister Megan (Stefania LaVie Owen) hit puberty and stopped bothering with him. Thankfully, Max can still find comfort in Omi (Austrian-born actress Krista Stadler), his homely old bun-wearing grandma who seems very adamant that her grandson finish writing his annual Letter to Santa.
As David disappears into work calls, Sarah cooks her ass off, and Megan video chats with her boyfriend, the Griswold’s Johnson cousins show up in the form of Sarah’s trailer-park sister Linda (Allison Tolman, FX’s Fargo), her gun-toting football-obsessed husband Howard (David Koechner, Hot Tub Time Machine), and their brood of ill-mannered children, as well as their tagalong, foulmouthed Aunt Dorothy (Two and A Half Men‘s Conchata Ferrell), who complains about the food, decor, and anything else she can think of. After his brutish cousins bully him at the dinner table, mocking his letter to Santa and its wishes for goodwill for his family, Max gives up his holiday hopes and dreams. He angrily tears up the paper and tosses it to the wind, which, unbeknownst to him, summons the demon Krampus and brings about a terrible snowstorm that knocks out all power, water, phones, and internet to the area.
While Santa comes to bring gifts for all the good girls and boys, Krampus comes to take all the naughty children. But before the big guy arrives to drag his victims beneath the snow in a Tremors-like fashion, the bipedal punisher sends ahead his army of evil minions — menacing snowmen, maniacal gingerbread men, wicked elves, a sinister toy clown, and a haunting jack-in-the-box. How can Max’s family survive such an assault, and when they were already at their most vulnerable? Omi might have some answers, and Uncle Howard’s guns might help, too.
Though Krampus is labeled a horror-comedy, the humor takes a hike once evil comes to town about 30 minutes in, and the audience realizes that these characters are truly in danger. The movie begins as a Christmas comedy with a slow-motion Black Friday-like shopping frenzy with costumers physically battling it out for sale items, set to the sounds of standard holiday tunes. Right there, Dougherty and his co-screenwriters Todd Casey and Zach Shields seek to show that the true meaning of Christmas is already lost, leaving an open invitation for the likes of Krampus and his sidekicks. It then turns into National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when the country cousins come to stay, but the overall vibe is very much like Gremlins, which is something we don’t get to see much of in this era of torture porn and social-media-set horror films. The movie has a lighthearted feel that’s accentuated by the interweaving of Christmas carols with Douglas Pipes’ feelgood score, all of which lulls you into a false sense of security. When the kids get frightened, Linda reassures them that “nothing bad’s gonna happen on Christmas,” and we’re inclined to believe her. Which is why when evil comes knocking, it’s even more shocking. There were some truly terrifying sequences in this film, but nothing bloody or gory. With so much tension and suspense in the latter part of the movie, some of the scarier parts are what you don’t see on screen.
I also liked that the characters didn’t feed entirely into their stereotypes. Though Uncle Howard brought his own artillery to a holiday gathering, he only pulled them out when they were actually needed, and while the ill-mannered Aunt Dorothy was chain-smoking and swigging her flask in the beginning, she dropped her tough exterior to help with the children as soon as shit got real. It’s obviously this family has no experience dealing with true adversities — Uncle Howard drives a hummer and has an arsenal of weapons, so they can’t be that bad off — and it seems like even the slightly inconveniences are not something they’re equipped to handle. Even so, you root for them. In a lot of horror films, the human characters are made to be so unlikable that you ended up cheering for the villain to just wipe them all out already. But here, you’re hoping the entire time that these people can figure out a way to somehow defeat Krampus, or at least reverse whatever conjured him.
I walked into Krampus with high hopes based on my love for Dougherty’s Trick ‘r’ Treat, and while there was so much I enjoyed about the new film, I found there were parts in the middle that dragged on a little bit and were confusing to follow. A few times I lost track of the children, and then when the evil minions came, some of the action went by too fast or too up close to distinguish what had happened. But the creature effects by Weta were stellar, as was the art and set design. There was also a beautifully rendered stop-motion animated flashback narrated by Omi that tells an emotional back story involving Krampus that was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Matter of fact, every time Omi was on screen, she lit it up, which is fitting since her main role in the survival plan was to “keep the fire hot” in the fireplace. (It stands to reason that if Santa can come down the chimney, so can something else.)
After I saw what wonderful tales Dougherty could weave with Trick ’r Treat, I felt like Legendary Pictures should have just given him all the monies. Like, here’s a boatload of cash, go make whatever movie you want. Krampus was granted a mere $15 million budget (a drop in the bucket in this day and age) that the filmmaker managed to use to created an interesting and moving story that was well-acted and beautifully designed.
Also, I don’t want to give anything away, but I really liked the ending, and this is after I was convinced that there was no conclusion that I would be satisfied with.
If you plan on seeing the film in theaters, its opening weekend is the perfect time to go since it coincides with Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht (when Krampus comes to handle all the naughty children). Even with all its frights, it’s still a Christmas movie at heart. I saw it at a movie theater in NYC’s Times Square, an area that is currently decorated for the holidays, with Christmas music blaring everywhere, and I felt that the transition from the theater to the streets was natural.
Even with its few flaws, Krampus deserves to be added into your annual holiday movie-viewing rotation, right after Christmas Vacation, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Gremlins (or maybe watch these in reserve order if you want to end on a laugh).