It was nearly a decade ago when screenwriter and director Michael Dougherty made Trick ‘R Treat, a horror anthology film based around Halloween myths that was deliciously old school in its approach to scares and laughs and surprisingly nasty under the surface as well. Trick ‘R Treat spent a couple of years in release limbo before hitting Blu-ray and DVD in 2009, but it became a cult hit and established Dougherty as a genre talent to watch. Six years later, he’s back with his sophomore feature, Krampus.
Based around ancient Austrian folklore about a demonic figure that was a sort of anti-Santa Claus — punishing the kids who were naughty all year in often grisly ways — Krampus is set in modern suburbia and focuses on the Engel family and their complete abandonment of the Christmas spirit. With insane shoppers in the stores and even more looney family members coming to visit, Christmas is more a chore than a time of cheer — and that’s when Krampus comes calling to give everyone an attitude check.
Starring Toni Collette, Adam Scott, David Koechner and Allison Tolman, Krampus is dark, scary and fun, and instantly recognizable as coming from the man who made Trick ‘R Treat. Den Of Geek sat down with Dougherty just before the film opened to discuss the origins of Krampus, making horror funny and the possibility of Trick ‘R Treat 2.
Den Of Geek: How did you come across the Krampus myth?
Michael Dougherty: It was about 10 years ago. This was the ancient times of the internet before social media really popped up. And friends started forwarding me the Krampus greeting cards that had started floating around online. It was sort of just love at first sight. I always wanted to do a scary Christmas movie. I used to draw my own creepy greeting cards and send them out to friends and family, and those would feature like carnivorous snowmen and Santa Claus falling into some mishaps and things like that.
So I knew back then that there was definitely a movie to be made about the character. But it wasn’t until about 2011 when I started working with my two cowriters, Todd Casey and Zach Shields, and we started crafting what the story would actually be.
What did you learn about it that you found most fascinating the more you researched it?
It was similar to the process on Trick ‘R Treat, because as a kid I was obsessed with Halloween, which led to looking into it and finding out, “Oh, it’s actually based on these ancient pagan rituals and customs.” And then when I dug into Christmas’s history, found out it was the same thing, that it was a pagan holiday and it always had a very spooky, mysterious, kind of mystical aspect to it. Ghost stories were a tradition, and Christmas witches, and monsters and things like that.
It just baffled me. It just didn’t make any sense. Why would we abandon these fun traditions? Because November 1st is a really depressing day for me. It’s like Halloween is over and in come the Christmas songs. I love Christmas. I really do. But something always felt like it was missing. And, lo and behold, you research it and find out, well, Christmas used to be a little bit more like Halloween. And in Europe where they still embrace Krampus, it still is.
So I figured, “Well, why don’t we just try to bring some of those customs and traditions and figures to America?”
People don’t know how dark the folklore can get, with Krampus abducting children and that kind of thing.
Yeah, but I think it was always meant to be sort of a playful kind of boogeyman character. My parents used to threaten me with a monster that would come for me if I didn’t eat my vegetables. There are just certain tools and tricks parents use to get their kids to behave, and I think Krampus is just one of those. We already threaten kids with Santa Claus. As much as we say like, “Oh, he’s going to bring you toys,” we also say, “Well, if you are not good he brings you a lump of coal.” So there is an implied threat to Santa that he is judging you. Krampus is just the more extreme version of that.
Did you ever have any of these kind of awkward family Christmases growing up that we have in the movie? You paint such a good picture of that, of the sort of family tensions and the one relative that nobody wants there.
Right, the black sheep. I feel like every family Christmas is an awkward family Christmas. There’s just no way around it. No family is perfect. No family always gets along. There’s always something going on in the background, some deep, long history between family members. So that to me is the truly scary part of the movie, is the welcoming in the in-laws, and the cousins, and people that you are forced to get along with even if you don’t have a lot of things in common.
And as you get older and you sort of have the option of spending Christmases with your friends, then that pressure gets taken off. And it’s kind of relaxing, in a sense. But yeah, a lot of those experiences were just based on the awkward interactions with in-laws and things like that.
When did it occur to you to kind of marry this to this whole idea about the over-commercialization of Christmas? Did that present itself kind of naturally to you as you were conceiving this…?
It seemed like a non-brainer. If Krampus really is a figure that is meant to be sort of the harsh protector of the holiday, something he would frown upon is most definitely over-commercialization of the holiday. We sort of wanted to give Krampus almost sort of this biblical wrath of God feel that he’s sort of looking down from above and really looking at us collectively and not just going after kids because they told a fib or something. That he will descend upon this entire town because they’ve lost their way.
But if you are going to make a monster movie around Christmas, to me that only makes sense. I even feel like Gremlins touched upon that first, because what Chris Columbus and Joe Dante have said is that the gremlins really sort of represent the worst of human nature. They are us. They look like little monsters and they are covered in green scales and big ears and teeth, but they are really all the nasty parts of human nature embodied. That to me is also what Black Friday and a lot of the over-commercialization of Christmas really means.
You made a monster movie here that’s actually got real monsters in it, real physical monsters. Great work by Weta.
Yeah. It was a combination of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, who are two separate companies.
Was it important to you from the start to have physical creatures on the set?
I’ve grown up loving monster movies since I was a kid. All my favorite monster movies used practical effects and creatures. I love Jim Henson, Star Wars…I appreciate digital, too. I just think the marriage of the two is what gives you the best results. There is something about when you use practical creatures you are forced to shoot in a specific style that actually makes things more suspenseful because you can only show pieces of your creature at a time.
The moment you show your creature from head to toe and well-lit, you’ve taken away any chance of fear. You take away the creature’s mystery and its power. The Alien is scary because a lot of times you just see this strange silhouette or just a piece of a claw or a tail, sometimes just a glistening outline here and there. Or the shark in Jaws is an obvious one. You have to let people’s imaginations fill in the blanks for it to become truly scary. If you only rely on CG, I don’t think it works as well.
Any ‘the shark doesn’t work’ moments with any of the creatures on this…?
Oh, constantly. That’s the thing. As much as I sing the praises of practical, I understand why people turn to CG, because it’s quicker. It’s easier. You’ve just got to shoot a plate, your actor reacting to something, nothing, and you worry about it in post. So there were headaches. There were puppets and things breaking down a lot. And the time it takes to set up a shot increases. So it can be a pain in the ass, but it’s worth it.
Toni Collette said that you kept the creatures away from them as long as possible until they actually had to see them so you could get those real responses. What was the atmosphere you wanted to create on the set? There’s a tone that comes across in the movie that’s kind of gleeful.
Uh-huh. I loved doing that. I was really inspired by what Ridley Scott did in the original Alien in that he didn’t let the actors see the chest burster until it actually pops out of John Hurt’s chest. Of course they knew a creature was going to pop out. They read the script. But they didn’t know what it was going to look like or how violent it was going to be. So when it actually pops out, the reactions from Sigourney Weaver and Veronica Cartwright and the other actors is 100% authentic.
So I tried to do the best we could by not letting actors see the puppets as they were being built. And when they were on set, the puppets had their own tent that they would get prepared in. and then we wouldn’t call the actors in from their trailers until the puppets were in place and ready to be shot. Then I would shoot the actors’ coverage first, obviously. That way their reactions are just more authentic.
Did you draw on any specific tradition for Krampus himself, like a particular country’s look for him?
He really originated in Austria, but it’s interesting, because I still think that there might be a figure that all of these creatures have descended from. So, whether it’s Krampus, or Black Pete, or Belsnickel, everybody has their creepy Christmas holiday figure. The Italians have a Christmas witch who gives gifts to children. I still think there’s probably some sort of source creature that we haven’t yet come across, but his current origin really is Austrian. So the look of him, the lure is a mix of the Austrian interpretation, but we Americanize it a bit. The addition of the minions is something that’s new to it, or even him really showing up on Christmas, because in Europe he shows up on December 5th, which is the night before St. Nicklaus Night. So we definitely have Americanized him a bit.
So things like the elves and the toys coming to life, those were all your additions?
Yeah. There’s a group of creatures called The Yule Lads which may or may not have been sort of accomplices of Krampus in the past. But the idea of creepy toys and things like that, those were our additions.
This movie plays like a dark fairytale. How hard is it to find the right balance between humor and horror?
It’s a Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen vibe that we want to go for. It was really important to us. So, from the production design, to the costumes, to the creatures, to the score it was always scary funny. You know, make sure that the balance is there. The editing, same thing. If a scene was getting too scary intense, sprinkle a little humor in there, because then your audience laughs to let their guard down; they are vulnerable. Then they are easy to scare again.
All of my favorite movies did that growing up. And that’s just something that really sunk in deep with me.
What are the other horror films you hold in high esteem?
Alien and Aliens, that kind of sci-fi horror. Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby. There was a great run from like mid-‘70s to mid-‘80s, like ’73 to ’85.
What do you have next in mind?
Definitely kicking around Trick ‘R Treat 2, which will involve more monsters. Unlike Krampus, that will be an R-rated horror movie in the tradition of the first one, I think.
So Trick ‘R Treat 2 is definitely a thing?
Oh, yeah! What happened was we announced Trick ‘R Treat 2 as my partners and I were finishing the script to Krampus. So I went to Legendary and I said, “Listen. I want to do Trick ‘R Treat 2, but we just finished this. And he’s public domain, so if we don’t jump on a Krampus movie now someone else might beat us.” So we all collectively agreed: “OK. Let’s get Krampus out of the way, then we’ll jump back to Trick ‘R Treat.”
So hopefully that will be the next thing.
Krampus is out in theaters now.