Because it is the holiday season, I’ve decided to visit several Christmas themed movies this week, leading up to the big holiday. The first film on my list is one that I failed to catch last year: Krampus, directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick-R-Treat) starring Toni Collette, Adam Scott, Alisson Tolman, and David Koechner. In the vein of such 80’s horror classics like Gremlins, Krampus is a horror-fantasy-comedy blend that works incredibly well due to a smart script, reliable performances, a fun premise, and great direction that balances the different tones with aplomb.
The premise is simple: a young boy who still believes in Santa wishes that his family wouldn’t fight so much around the holidays and act like they once did, before work, conflicting morals, and teenagers entered the picture and caused animosity towards one another. Krampus, being the shadow of St. Nick, preys on the young boy’s wish and hate that his family is not what it once was and then delightfully tortures the whole family. It is wonderful to behold the chaos and terror Krampus instills. For those of you who don’t know, Krampus is an old Austrian-German folklore of a winter demon that is the antithesis of Santa Claus. The monster is not original to the film, as there is an actual Krampuslauf (December 5th) where adults dress as the demon to scare kids. Krampus is a half goat half man that preys on children who have fallen on Santa’s naughty list and then effectively punishes those children. It’s messed up.
In the film, Krampus uses minions, anthropomorphic toys, evil gingerbread cookies, and stalking to torture and capture his victims. As Krampus terrorizes the entire family, he causes a catastrophic blizzard to wipe out all power and access to others, forcing the family to face him directly. There is a playful cruelty to Krampus, he takes his time as his minions pick the family off one by one with laughter and glee. Krampus stands solitary in the distance, watching the terror from afar. These more traditional horror scenes are entertaining as they rely less on jump scares and more on tension and crazy horror action. The minion designs of demonic angels and teddy bears are great, but the jack-in-the-box takes the cake. It is this large disgusting beast with manibles, slithering around the attic. The creature design across the board, particularly the jack-in-the-box and the full reveal of Krampus near the end are magnificent. Plus any film that uses such great practical effects, as displayed in the film, deserves praise. Very little of what’s on screen is CGI, as almost all of the creatures are practical.
In fact, the whole film has excellent production value. The cinematography is great, as it casts the main villain in shadows and snow. The sound design is some of the best. As the evil critters scatter about, the noise of their footsteps and giggles permeate small portions of the home or overwhelm the entire home. The music twists typical Christmas tunes with pagan chants and tenseness. The actors are comedic and dramatic when they need to be, completely playing the situations straight, and the script is actually funny. The film never loses it’s sense of humor, from it’s wild opening of shoppers crowding a department store looking for last minute gifts in a slow-motion hellscape to the final reveal at the very end. The film knows exactly what it is and effectively executes that vision.
It can be difficult for a horror comedy to succeed due to the typically opposite tones. But if the right story and the right director, the results can be splendid. Krampus may not be for everyone, as the tale concocted by Michael Dougherty is twisted and not a typical Christmas film. It is about family and overcoming differences to celebrate what’s important in life: family, friends and love. But it is also a film where gingerbread men shoot someone with a nail gun. That clash of tone can make a bad film out of a good premise, but with Dougherty’s skill and focus on the characters and the emotional bond between the family members, the film never loses its focus. Dougherty has created a film that fully embraces the spirit of Christmas, while also treating the audience with delightfully funny horror.