In many regions of Europe (but originating from pre-Christian folklore in Austria), Krampus is basically the anti-Santa Claus. Instead of showering gifts on children who have behaved like the chubby guy in the red suit, the horned, hoofed Krampus punishes kiddies who have been bad – often by taking said children away for death by devouring or a one-way ticket through the doorway to Hell. So what would happen if all of us – adults as well as tots – were bad this season and all but abandoned the true spirit of Christmas? That is the basis of Krampus, the sometimes wicked new horror satire from writer/director Michael Dougherty, who favored us with similar nasty/funny holiday fare via his cult 2009 hit Trick ‘R Treat.
Dougherty sets his mood with a brilliant opening credits sequence: as Bing Crosby croons “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” we are treated to slow-motion scenes of Christmas shoppers trampling and beating each other as they grab for merchandise in a big-box store right out of a consumer nightmare. The director (who co-wrote the screenplay with Todd Casey and Zach Shields) then focuses on Tom and Sarah Engel (Adam Scott and Toni Collette), who watch in horror as their son Max (Emjay Anthony) turns his own Christmas pageant into a brawl right on the stage.
Back home, we learn why Max is so troubled: he feels like an outcast at school, he and his older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) have grown apart, and worse of all, it seems as if his parents are pulling away from each other. Max’s closest confidante is his Austrian grandmother (Krista Stadler), who seems especially perturbed around the holiday season herself. On top of it all, Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman) and her obnoxious, crude, loudmouthed husband Howard (David Koechner), plus kids(!), have arrived for the holidays. With them, they bring hard-drinking, foul-tongued Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), as well as an unwanted guest. It’s enough to make Max renounce the holiday entirely, especially when his cousins find a letter he wrote to Santa and tease him mercilessly about it.
What Dougherty is suggesting – well, not really suggesting, but driving home – is that in the absence of the feelings of love, peace, and hope that the Christmas season is supposed to engender, something darker will rush in to fill the gap. That’s a prime set-up for a holiday horror satire and a subversive take on this most commercialized of holidays, and for a while Dougherty rides it wonderfully. Even though he draws the family members in broad strokes, each gets enough of a moment or two for real humanity to make them relatable and allow us to invest in their problems – the key to making a successful horror movie and not just a slaughterfest.
It’s when the tone switches from satire to all-out horror that the director struggles a bit. Again, the set-up is eerie: the Engels’ neighborhood is not just snowbound but seemingly cut off from the rest of reality, with creepy snowmen popping up on lawns and houses becoming shattered artifacts of Krampus’ passing. But once Krampus and his minions (yes, he has minions) come on the scene, the more subversive elements of the story are put on the back burner in favor of an all-out siege by monsters – which kind of makes the movie feel like two different films stitched together.
Yet what cool monsters they are. It’s been widely noted that Dougherty is influenced by the kind of spooky/funny movies produced and/or directed in the ‘80s and early ‘90s by the likes of Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg, and Krampus channels that vibe as easily as the director did with Trick ‘R Treat. You can feel the glee in his heart as he rolls out truly bizarre creations like a giant, shark-jawed jack-in-the-box, a posse of evil little gingerbread men, and other nasty little menaces, all lovingly brought to us through the work of largely practical effects. There’s something delightful about seeing Toni Collette struggle with a vicious, fanged teddy bear and knowing that it’s actually there, in her hands (for the most part), even if the editing around it gets a little tricky.
The cast is uniformly game, with Koechner and Tolman standouts in what could have easily been walking clichés (and do bend that way sometimes, to be fair), while cinematographer Jules O’Laughlin helps Dougherty envision a suitably grim winter palate of muted colors and shadows. Although the tone switches back and forth constantly, and the movie ends on a more mournful, darker note than expected, there’s also a sense of fun that keeps the whole ride clanking along (literally; Krampus is decked out in chains as per the mythology that he was bound in by the Christian Church).
One wishes that Dougherty had stayed the course with the story’s more subversive leanings, but if you can navigate the movie’s split personality, Krampus is entertaining, occasionally scary, and the kind of chilly fun that might make a nice antidote to the rest of the season’s more traditional holiday fare. It might even make you appreciate those family members you can’t stand just a little bit more.
Krampus is out in theaters today (Friday, Dec. 4).