The Christmas holiday and the horror genre may seem like strange bedfellows to the average observer. An occasion celebrating peace on earth, joy and goodwill merged with tales of the gory and macabre seems repulsive to some, but it’s that light and dark thematic contrast that makes it so appealing. In fact, those who scoff at the notion may not realize how closely tied together Christmas and horror are; even the most quintessential Yuletide story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is at heart a ghost story, and the intent is to literally scare Scrooge into embracing his better self. The seasonal staple It’s A Wonderful Life plays out like a disturbing Twilight Zone episode in its third act, and even Home Alones family fun is based on characters being abused and tortured in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Friday The 13th or Saw film.
As many have noted, the lyrics in the novelty tune Santa Claus Is Coming To Town are, when seen in a different light, incredibly creepy (“he sees you when you’re sleeping/he knows when you’re awake” being the most insidious section). There is a shadow side to the holiday spirit, a recurring theme of “be good or else,” that is recurrent for a good reason: there exists a historic figure from German-speaking Alpine folklore known as Krampus, who, instead of bringing gifts, punishes bad children during the holiday season. Many Christmas horror films have involved serial killers in Santa Claus costumes, but with Krampus, director/co-writer Michael Dougherty has made a film with the “actual” evil Santa that is, for the most part, a delightful ride.
A large part of the film’s success is due to the grounding of its characters, played by a top-notch cast. The movie begins as a John Hughes-penned holiday comedy might, with family dysfunction decking the halls: after an altercation at a recital in a mall (allowing for a hilarious Black Friday-esque shopping maul montage) young Max (Emjay Anthony) just wants to celebrate Christmas with family traditions of his past, but is thwarted at every turn. His father (Adam Scott) is too busy with his work, his mother (Toni Collette) is stressing over preparing for the extended family’s arrival, his sister (Stefania LaVie Owen) is wrapped up in her neighborhood boyfriend and his cousins, to put it nicely, are horrible monsters. Once his uncle and aunt (David Koechner and Allison Tolman) arrive and the family dinner is served, everything goes wrong, concluding with Max’s letter to Santa Claus (who he still believes in) being read aloud and ridiculed. In tears, Max tears up the letter and throws it out the window…and instead of floating to the ground, the torn pieces fly up into the clouds, which are forming closer and darker by the second.
The relatable nature of this setup is immense for anyone who’s had to deal with family members who don’t understand you at the holidays (so, everyone, then) and by the time a mysterious blizzard sets in and the family notices strange happenings outside, the tension for the tale is well primed. Unfortunately, the pace of the film drags a bit as the family explore the house and the neighborhood, and proceedings begin to feel a bit aimless. But when Krampus’ helpers arrive, the movie becomes a blast, and doesn’t let up until the very end.
Dougherty has his horror bonafides, being the writer and director of the Halloween horror anthology Trick ‘R’ Treat, and, as in that film, the effects and monsters in Krampus are among the best in the last decade, destined to become iconic. For the most part, the effects are done practically, providing a necessary tangibility to the attacking helpers and Krampus himself, and the results are spectacular. When CGI is used, it’s to good effect, and all of the effects are excellently designed, providing images you’re not likely to forget. I’ve deliberately refrained from even describing some of the creatures here, simply because half the fun is the escalation of discovering what the next monster is. The cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin is impressive and expansive given the low-budget nature of the sets and scope of the film (it takes place inside a single house and the surrounding area of one neighborhood in the middle of a low visibility blizzard). The score by Douglas Pipes is playful and smart, devilishly twisting Christmas carols into evil taunts. The cumulative effect is that you’re watching an honest to god studio mainstream horror film, a rarity these days and a type of film that seemingly only Universal Pictures and Legendary (who also released October’s sadly little seen Crimson Peak) wish to make.
If Krampus is a herald for more imaginative, fantastical big(ish) budget horror, it’s a solid one. The film plays like a cross between Gremlins and a Tales From The Crypt episode as it raises the question of whether this family will get their holiday redemption or a holiday comeuppance. Comedy fans will dig the playful sense of humor the film has, and horror fans will enjoy the homages to past classics (along with the aforementioned Gremlins there are strong elements of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness present). The crowd I saw it with was shouting and screaming in glee nearly the entire time, and a young woman who brought her friends said to them as the credits rolled “oh my god, I am SO sorry for bringing you guys” in a traumatized voice. Trust me when I say that if you miss Krampus, YOU’LL be sorry.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Dec. 5th, 2015.