At first glance, Christmas movies and horror films don’t have a whole lot in common and yet the genres have been colliding for more than four decades. In fact, one of the first seminal American slasher films is the 1974 holiday horror classic Black Christmas. Forty years later, Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat) is keeping the holiday tradition going with Krampus.
Like most holiday films, Krampus centers on a dysfunctional family in the days before Christmas. Tom (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation) is too busy taking work calls and drinking to realize his wife Sarah (Toni Collette, Little Miss Sunshine) is feeling neglected and stressed with her sister’s family joining them for the holidays. None of this is lost on Max (Emjay Anthony, Chef) who writes his annual letter to Santa asking for his family to get along. But when it becomes clear that his family is completely devoid of Christmas spirit, instead of mailing the letter, he rips it up and throws it out the window, which evidently catches the attention of our titular monster. The Krampus, based on German folklore, is Santa’s monstrous counterpart who punishes those who misbehave and lose the Christmas spirit.
Watching Krampus, it quickly becomes evident how much the horror and holiday movie genres have in common. Both genres emphasize morality, be it holiday cheer or abstinence. Both genres often center around mythical creatures and the consequences of not believing. In holiday movies we get Santa, in horror films we get Jason Voorhees. Krampus insidiously plots itself along these overlapping points in order to create a film that works as both a horror film and a holiday tale.
Krampus features a delicate balance of satire and genuine holiday glee. Dougherty certainly delights in the more modern critiques of Christmas- the film’s opening is a slow motion horror show of holiday capitalism, but the film’s real interests lie in the more traditional themes of family, sacrifice, and belief. Krampus has much more in common with It’s A Wonderful Life than it does Black Christmas. Only instead of being a tale of redemption, Krampus is one of punishment.
The family on the receiving end of this punishment is refreshingly well developed. Scott and Collette are given ample opportunity to show of their comedic and dramatic chops as a couple trying to bury their problems beneath Christmas cheer. This proves difficult once Uncle Howard- an appropriately repugnant David Koechner (Anchorman)- and his children arrive to spoil the holiday. The cast succeeds more often than it fails to keep up with script, which shifts from horrific and comedic gears on a dime.
Despite the holiday theme, this is still a horror film, and a horror film is only as good as it’s monster. Thankfully Krampus does deliver on the monsters, even if it is light on the actual Krampus. The shadow of St. Nick spends most of his time in the shadows and when he does emerge he’s not quite the delightfully maniacal force he could have been. Thankfully his helpers make for both amusing and formidable baddies. The film delights in twisting Christmas iconography to fit its horror mold. Krampus’s elves are less than jolly, his gingerbread cookies are homicidal, and instead of a sack, Krampus has a hungry, hungry jack-in-the-box.
This is a PG-13 horror film, so the mayhem is kept hidden in the shadows or behind quick cuts. John Axelrad’s cutting is sometimes maddeningly disorienting, leaving you wondering what exactly is happening. Krampus doesn’t need buckets of blood- this is Christmas after all- but it’s hard not to feel like the film is pulling one or two of its punches; thankfully its ending hits home.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Michael Dougherty clearly has a passion for holidays. His first film, Trick ‘r Treat has become a Halloween classic, and his second film Krampus looks to do the same for Christmas. Dougherty’s script, written with Todd Casey and Zach Shields, keeps the madness and merriment coming at a steady pace and the score by Douglas Pipes is fantastic. Your enjoyment of Krampus will likely come down to whether you buy into its, admittedly odd tone. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and then joyously stabs it to pieces. It might feel to sincere for some, too dark for others. But for those looking for a bleaker kind of magic this Christmas, Krampus might be the perfect gift.