Hello there, dear reader!
It’s that time of the year. The time for community and closeness, love and gratitude, to shower those whom you care for most with affection and merriment when jolly ol’ St. Nicholas sweeps down the chimney to reward all the wonderfully behaved boys and girls. Or, if you’re in this movie, you watch in dismay as a caravan of nightmares parades themselves on your nuclear family as a horned, hooved monster of the ancient dark looms on high, ready to carry all your souls to the bowels of the underworld. Because this ain’t Santa Claus, folks—it’s Krampus.
Krampus, released in 2015, comes from the twisted mind of Michael Dougherty, the man behind my beloved Trick r Treat. This time around, he plays the story straight while still keeping his finger on the pulse of holiday essence. While the film isn’t quite the instant classic that Trick r Treat is, Krampus still manages to be a damn entertaining Christmas horror movie in the vein of Gremlins. Dougherty has a penchant for folklore and legends, dialing in here on an ancient figure with roots in Norse mythology and pagan rites (I swear to God, these damn pagans! If you’ve been with me all semester, you know.). It can be quite fascinating to see how these bygone characters through a contemporary prism. Although this flick isn’t a through-and-through hit, I appreciate the filmmakers digging deep into our world’s horror culture and shining a spotlight on this darker Christmas spirit.
The film begins as Christmas naturally does: at a megalopolis super-store mobbed by rabid shoppers. It’s a rather terrific sequence. People are bum-rushing the aisles, assaulting fellow patrons and raising all manners of hell: right hooks fly, skateboards to the face, security tasing the ever-living life out of folks while a crowd gathers and cheers. It’s an exaggerated display, but one that captures the madness we all feel around this time of year. I love Christmas as much as anyone, but it can be hectic, especially where the family is concerned. Thus, cue our protagonists. We have Max (Emjay Anthony), a boy old enough to know Santa isn’t real but young enough to hold out hope still. But outside of his loving grandma Omi (Krista Stadler), Max’s family is a bag of d****. Okay, admittedly, that may be a bit harsh, but they’re certainly not helping make things better for our boy Max. His parents’ (Adam Scott, Toni Collette) marriage is on the rocks, and he and his older sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), don’t connect like they used to. Only Omi seems to care for Max’s interests, keeping his love of Santa and Christmas burning bright. It isn’t until later, after a family dinner, when his meanie cousins read aloud his Santa letter, painfully embarrassing the boy, that he tears up his note and casts it out into the coal-black wintery December night, forsaking the Christmas spirit. Poor Max couldn’t have known, though, that this slight would bring about their doom.
Time for a little history, dear reader. And yes, this will be on the test.
A particularly nasty fellow that predates Christianity, Krampus is the Christmas Devil. The polar opposite of St. Nicholas, Krampus is the punisher, the one who deals personally with naughty children. But this isn’t some crotchety old man who leaves lumps of coal in stockings. Krampus is essentially a monster: a half-goat, half-demon creature with a man-like visage, with large curling ram-like horns atop his head, dark hair, fangs, and a long tongue. Clawed hands and hooved feet, Krampus is the anti-Santa. He carries a bundle of birch branches with him, all the better to beat the bad kiddies. And if Nega-Nick is feeling frisky, he’ll stuff the poor bastards into his sack, dragging them down to his hellish lair to be tortured or eaten.
A real barrel of laughs, this guy.
The name derives from the German krampen (claw) and is said to be the son of Hel, the Norse god of the underworld. Krampus’s origins date back to pre-Germanic paganism in Europe, chiefly from Austrian folklore in the Alpine region. According to the lore, Krampus would appear on December 5, Krampusnacht (Krampus Night). Further instilling the dichotomy, Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day) follows on December 6. St. Nicholas and Krampus precede Catholicism and Christianity, tying back to the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Point of fact, the Catholic Church tried to banish Krampus festivities because he was too much like good old Satan. Austria’s conservative Christian Social Party attempted similar measures in 1934, and even WWII European fascists wanted to rid themselves of the Kramp-Man. Too Social Democrat for their liking. If even vicious dictators want nothing to do with you, you are one bad hombre.
Oh, how I wish the film fully capitalized on that malevolence.
I don’t mean to say Krampus is without its wickedness, but its tone is unbalanced. Where Dougherty struck gold between dark humor and scares in Trick r Treat, here it’s more rumpled. The comedy feels a bit broader and kooky. There are some odd choices made here, man. When the moment comes for them to turn the screws, it’s undercut with goofiness, not all of which may have been intentional. The musical score is the main culprit here. Composer Douglas Pipes doesn’t torpedo the work, but it’s likely a victim of the film’s overall jumbly tone. It can be too light and faux-cheery, making for a farcical holiday theme, which works great during the scenes of family dysfunction, but blands moments of fright. Narrative and character beats also fail at times to go full-on horror. That is the film’s core issue: it doesn’t fully commit to the horror. It’s a shame because Dougherty has shown that he is quite capable of riding the line between funnies and fear. He is also the reason this movie works at all.
Amongst its stumbles, Krampus is chock full of atmosphere and style. The production design and practical creature effects are absolutely delightful. Dougherty has an eye for holiday paraphernalia, and the Krampus team stocks their halls with holly and mischief. The sets and costumes are rich in Christmas flavor. The cinematography is lush in the quieter spots, frigid once trouble comes a-knocking. In an age of movie monster CGI garbage, it’s splendid to see a group of filmmakers commit to making the spectacle as real as possible.
While not a horror home run, there are still some great moments of creep. Krampus himself doesn’t disappoint, and I relished every second he was on screen. The sound mix is also excellent, stirring up a cacophony of unearthly wails and howls that had me giddy with ghoulish delight. There’s also a beautifully animated sequence that had me wishing the entire feature had been done in this fashion.
The human characters aren’t much to write home about, and given that they take up the fair share of the film’s focus, that’s a problem. It partially works itself out, though, thanks to the cast. They are just so damn good-looking and likable! You can’t help but inherently fall for them. Shout out to Adam Scott for being the man.
The film is a bumpy sleigh ride but one worth checking out. We don’t enjoy an overabundance of quality Christmas horror movies, so it’s nice to have one with personality.
— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.
Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. As a Tempo reporter, Chris writes film reviews for The Lewis Flyer. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.