We were about 30 minutes into watching Krampus (2015), and my husband looked up from his phone, furrowed brow. Confused, he told me the imdb entry didn’t list Joe Dante as the director. We had been wryly tagging examples of Dante’s brand of winsome ghoulishness for a third of the movie at that point, which was even plainer once the movie finally committed to the horror part of horror-comedy. But husband read right; it wasn’t the work of Joe Dante, director of such films as Small Soldiers (1998), The Howling (1981), and the ultimate cautionary tale of what happens when you buy pets as Christmas gifts, 1984’s Gremlins. Nope, this version of the Krampus, with its weird, winning blend of heart and guts, belongs to Michael Dougherty, and once revealed, that also made perfect sense. Dougherty’s resume straddles movie scripts and comics born of movie scripts, but he might be best loved as writer and director of cult classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007), a love letter to E.C. Comics-style horror with several overlapping vignettes told in a recursive timeline, a la Pulp Fiction. Krampus is a far more straightforward film, but its heart is the same meat as Trick ‘r Treat’s: a warning to keep the spirit of the holidays, or else.
The story of Krampus takes its cues from the pulpy cinematic universe of creepshows like Trick ‘r Treat or, indeed, Gremlins, rather than folklore. Max (Emjay Anthony) is the bright-eyed hero child of the story, the youngest of the affluent Engel clan. His parents are businessman Tom (Adam Scott) and perfectionist mom Sarah (Toni Collette). His older sister Beth is deeply invested in being a teenager, and with his parents perennially preoccupied, Max mostly bonds with his grandmother, called Omi (Krista Stadler), or granny in German. While she understands English, Omi speaks German and mostly has conversations with her son and grandson that are only subtitled on her side. From the beginning, there is extra portentousness whenever Omi refers to the Christmas holidays, and it will surprise no one that she’s harboring secret knowledge of the title monster. To this end, it does bother me a little that Omi is depicted as so delicately, irretrievably old. I mean, I am Adam Scott’s age, and my mom still has an iPhone and uses GPS and everything. I guess Omi could have had Tom late in life, but I still think it is, chronologically speaking, more likely fraulein Omi saw David Bowie during his Berlin years than this Krampus in his native element. But I digress.
Uptight Sarah’s sister’s family are visiting for Christmas, and they are Griswolds: the Next Generation. Part of this unpleasantness is simple class conflict; sister Linda (Allison Tolman) strains a smile over her resentment of her rich sister’s fanciness, though her husband and children prefer to cope by being assholes. As Uncle Howard, David Koechner punches in as the movie’s Randy Quaid, though his insistence on coming to Christmas dinner with loaded guns will be eventually vindicated. Howie Jr. is a nonverbal glutton and his sisters Stevie and Jordan are bellicose, camo-wearing Packers fans in their father’s image. And worse yet, there’s Aunt Dorothy, viciously blunt and determined to be as nasty as she is knows she is unwanted. But in the middle of all of this messy family stuff, sweet Max is still desperately clutching his belief in love and justice and Santa Claus, all of which he has poured into his secret letter to the jolly fat elf. Well, secret from everyone but Omi, who privately encourages him. But when his cousins discover his letter, they bully him with his prayers for the happy family he remembers from years gone by at dinner. Humiliated, Max rips up his letter and renounces his good-hearted wishes. Do you want a Krampus? Because that is how you get a Krampus.
But the Krampus isn’t all Max and his family gets for Christmas. Indeed, apart from glimpsing hooves, we don’t really even see the Krampus himself until close to the end of the movie, a restraint that risks frustrating the audience, but probably keeps the film from getting outright silly. First, a freak blizzard sets in, isolating the Engels and making them literally powerless under deep drifts of snow. Unable to reach her boyfriend electronically, Beth sets out alone to visit him and doesn’t come back. Predictably, the family goes mildly Sartre on each other as the walls close in, but Beth’s disappearance unlocks their empathy for each other, too, and I appreciate that the family begins making nice well before they hit null likability. Meanwhile, Omi is guarded and watchful and clearly knows what’s happening as she quietly makes hot chocolate and urges her son “to keep the fire hot.” The moment the family snoozes on Omi’s advice though, the Krampus delegates terrorizing the Engels to an army of misfit toys that drop down the chimney, including evil gingerbread men, a teddy bear right out of Five Nights at Freddy’s, and a giant jack-in-the-box with a toothy maw that’s the better to eat you with. The family ends up fulfilling part of Max’s wish by pulling together as a unit, albeit a combat unit. It’s not enough though. One by one, they’re taken by the Krampus’ festively wicked henchtoys, until there’s only Max to face down the demon he inadvertently summoned when he threw away his Christmas spirit.
I like that the Krampus in Krampus is designed with a strong Santa aesthetic, which isn’t all that common. While they almost always trail chains, birch branches for beatings,and sacks of screaming children, Krampuses usually get depicted as more devil-like, or maybe Horned God-like, with an emphasis on horns and a lolling tongue that would make Venom blush. Still too ineffably bestial to pontificate on Max’s sins — you’re not getting any Pinhead monologues out of this one — this Krampus cuts the figure of a Mirror Universe Santa that really works for the story he’s in. With his robes and chains and a distended rictus stretching his Santa beard, he looks both ancient and brutal, but he also starved, like evil born from hunger itself, the polar opposite of Santa’s jolly plenty. This also works for the hazy timelessness of the movie itself, which handwaves away technology in the Krampus’ annihilating blizzard that locates everything in an effective eternal 1984. It’s another reason why keeping him for last was probably a good choice. I’m not sure how plausible or scary he could be for a duration, and his drawn maliciousness would drain the fun out of shotgunning squealing gingerbread. But for a final confrontation with a grieving boy, he’s just right.
As a horror-comedy, Krampus is rarely really scary or funny. Yet it is fun throughout, and it manages to be heartwarming, too. This is something else it has in common with Trick ‘r Treat, which can often be shocking, but usually lands somewhere closer to thrilling than frightening. In Krampus, the tightrope balance of its disparate elements – gross relatives, vicious toys, ancient Santa demon — endlessly fascinates me. Why does this work? It could so easily topple into broad comedy or mean-spirited gore. It does not. It keeps to the middle, and I think that’s how it stays fun, even at the cost of belly laughs and skin crawls. In other horror-comedies, especially seasonal ones like Thankskilling or the 2006 remake of Black Christmas, so much of the humor derives from contempt, particularly contempt for vacuous holiday traditions and contempt for the characters in the film that keep them. These movies rub their hands with glee to murder some fools, but without having a genuine sadistic streak, which I don’t believe most horror fans do, there’s not much entertainment value there. Krampus still loves its awful characters, just like Max still loves them even when he’s wishing them away,and it gives most of them a chance to redeem themselves, even if they still get Krampused in the end.
And Krampus is never cynical. Keeping the right holiday spirit is the ultimate message of Krampus, just as it was in Trick ‘r Treat, so it shouldn’t be surprising that embodying that spirit is their common strength. Krampus opens with a hordes of mall shoppers fighting to the tune of “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Trick ‘r Treat opens with a 1950s-style filmstrip educating the audience on safe behavior during Halloween, and underlining the point, Principal Wilkins counsels delinquent Charlie early on, “All these traditions – jack-o-lanterns, putting on costumes, handing out treats – they were started to protect us.” The upshot of both is showing the audience what the movie posits we’ve forgotten. When Max asks Omi whether she believes in Santa Claus, she replies, of course. But, she continues, she also believes that Santa is what you make of him, and that to believe in him is to believe in the true spirit of the holiday. As the Engels will discover, this isn’t vague transcendentalism on Omi’s part, but right in line with Wilkins’ observation that there is meaning behind traditions that is forgotten at one’s own peril. In Trick ‘r Treat that peril is more explicit, as the feetie-pajama-clad demon Sam oversees Halloween with ironic punishments and bladed candy bars, but the Krampus and its minions do pretty much the same thing here. What Principal Wilkins told Charlie about Halloween also means that all the traditions of Christmas that bring the family together – a family that has grown distant and quarrelsome for mostly material reasons – aren’t there to make Wal-Mart money or show off one’s wealth. They’re there to protect you from the soul-destroying bitterness that calls to the Krampus.
All Angela wants for Christmas is the WordPress editor to go back to the way it was.