Released: 4 December 2015
Director: Michael Dougherty
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $15 million
Stars: Adam Scott, Emjay Anthony, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Krista Stadler, and Luke Hawker/Gideon Emery
Young Max Engel (Anthony) finally has enough of his dysfunctional family’s squabbling and loses his festive spirit, which incurs the wrath of Krampus (Hawker/Emery), a fearsome, horned demonic beast who lays siege to the neighbourhood and forces the family to band together to save one another from a monstrous fate.
Everyone knows about Santa Claus; jolly ol’ Saint Nic has been the good-natured mascot of the season for generations and is celebrated as a figure of generosity and joy for kids the world over. You may be less familiar with Father Christmas’s demonic counterpart, Krampus, however; a monstrous figure whose roots can be traced back to pre-Christian Alpine traditions, the horned demon delivers coal and misfortune to the naughty at Christmas time. After breathing new life into the Halloween season in Trick ‘r Treat (Dougherty, 2007), director Michael Dougherty turned his attention towards crafting a scary Christmas movie and became inspired by the legend of Krampus. Taking his cue from horror-holiday classic Gremlins (Dante, 1984), Dougherty sought to infuse his Christmas horror with both dark comedy and commentary on family troubles and consumerism during the festive times. A worldwide box office gross of over $61 million made Krampus a decent financial success, and reviews were generally quite positive, with the film being praised as a modern horror classic for the season.
Krampus kicks off not by establishing a horrific or disturbing atmosphere, but by showing an amusing representation of the many and varied moods that surround the festive season; against the dulcet tones of Perry Como’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, shoppers rage and fight each other for presents and purchases, spend exorbitant amounts of money, and basically resemble little more than a manic hoard in their rush to fill the void of consumerism. Clerks and employees are largely apathetic and little more than zombies, completely worn out by their mundane profession and the madness of it all, and even the shopping mall Santa Claus is depicted as a lecherous and unsettling figure.
Amidst all of this is young Max, who gets into a fight in the middle of a Christmas recital because an older, bigger kid was bad-mouthing the spirit of Christmas. Although he’s old enough to know that Santa Claus isn’t actually real, he still believes in the season and wants to keep the dream alive for those younger than him who deserve to find out naturally, rather than from some man-spirited kid, and is enthusiastic to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (Melendez, 1965) as is his family’s tradition. His teenage sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), is far less passionate about the spirit of Christmas, or anything for that matter; disinterested in playing nice for the season, or the turmoil in her family, she’s far more concerned with texting and seeing her boyfriend, Derek (Leith Towers), though she does try to keep Max from lashing out when his cousins mock his letter to Santa over Christmas dinner. Of all of the family, only Omi Engel (Stadler) shares Max’s appreciation for the spirit of Christmas; dutifully baking cookies and helping to wrap presents, she encourages him to keep the magic alive. Warm and friendly, she spends the majority of the film speaking in German, which is a neat twist, and all of her immediate family understand her despite talking to her in English, which really adds a flavour to her character as a wise and loving patriarch. Rather than add to the stress of the season, Omi is a calm and reliable anchor who also carries the burden of a past experience with the horrific demon who comes knocking mid-way through the film.
Sarah (Collette) is very much a mother, and a woman, nearing the end of her tether. Like a lot of mothers around this time of year, she’s feeling the stress of having to try and keep her dysfunctional family together and increasingly exasperated by all the little issues that keep cropping up; she just wants a nice, quiet, uneventful family Christmas but Max’s behaviour throws a spanner in the works and Beth’s attitude towards her in-laws coming to stay only adds fuel to the fire. Although her husband, Tom (Scott), is sympathetic and supportive, he’s not exactly an assertive force in the family, meaning that Sarah carries a lot of the burden on her shoulders. Her stress is only exacerbated when her sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), arrives with her massive troupe: abrasive husband Howard (Koechner), sluggish Howie Jr. (Maverick Flack), sporty sisters Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel), and baby Chrissie (Sage Hunefeld). The differences between the two families couldn’t be more apparent: where Tom is pretty easy-going and attentive and content to be more of a number cruncher, Howard is a loud, proud, all-American hunter and avid sports fan; where Max is friendly and chatty, Howie Jr. is a slob-like mute. Though both Sarah and Linda try to cope with their dysfunctional families as best as they can, things are even more strained when Linda brings along grouchy Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), a rude crank who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and criticise Sarah’s house, kids, or attempts to try and mix up the usual Christmas menu.
Despite Tom and Omi’s best efforts to keep Max’s spirits up, the mockery of his cousins is the last straw and, disillusioned, he rips up his letter to Santa Claus and tosses it into the frigid night air after ranting at his family for ruining Christmas. Almost immediately, bad things begin to happen; first, an ominous dark storm sweeps over the entire town, then the family wakes up on Christmas Eve to find a blizzard has buried them in show and cut off their heat and power. The first signs of something truly creepy come when Max spots a mysterious snowman in their front yard and a massive sack full of Christmas presents is delivered to their house. Already struggling because of the political, financial, and familial attitudes between their two groups, the sudden weather and power outage only further escalates the tensions in the house; this pales in comparison to the fate of poor, cute Beth, however, as she spots a demonic, hooded figure out in the blizzard and is promptly spirited away by the howling creature when she braves the storm to check on Derek.
Although the families find themselves trapped, freezing, and increasingly at risk, there is room for some much-needed bonding; Sarah and Tom share a quiet moment where they reflect on how stale their marriage has become, Sarah also reconnects with Linda over their shared memories of their deceased mother, and, in a twisted way, Max’s Christmas wish comes true as the families are forced to set aside their petty squabbles and work together to fend off Krampus’s minions. Even Scott and Howard find some common ground, despite one being a pacifist and the other being a gun-toting activist; when Howard is injured while they’re out searching for Beth, he hands his shotgun to Tom and finally offers him his respect as a provider and protector of his family. Although the film is largely bloodless (and there’s a case to be made that none of the main characters actually die) and the horror is offset by dark comedy and a biting wit, this serves to make the relationships between the characters all the more real and relatable. None of them are perfect, and their relationships with each other are severely strained (either explicitly or inexplicitly), but they find common ground in their crisis as they are all bound together by their fear and the need to survive.
Krampus employs a number of horrific minions to do its dirty work, ranging from vicious little gingerbread men, bloodthirsty toys, a demonic jack-in-the-box (Brett Beattie), and even cackling, perverted versions of Santa’s elves. Krampus’s minions may be cute and ridiculous but they’re incredible vicious and cruel, snaking down through the chimney on iron hooks and dragging the family away one-by-one. Krampus brings a number of these to life using digital effects, as is to be expected, but excels in its use of traditional, practical effects for many of its monstrosities, such as the aforementioned jack-in-the-box, which swallows Jordan whole up in the attic. Of course, the clear highlight is the titular creature itself, a cloven-hooved horror that appears as a nightmarish version of Santa Claus, Krampus sports a twisted, screaming face mask, devil-like horns, and long, talon-like hands. A lumbering, monstrous creature, Krampus isn’t onscreen for long, but its presence is felt throughout the film; when it does appear, it’s a heart-stopping and frightening experience as it looms over its prey and regards them silently or emits an animalistic growl. Its backstory is related by Omi, who recounts how she had a similar crisis of faith at Christmas time as a girl and evoked Krampus’s wrath, which left all of her family dragged to Hell and her as the sole survivor. This is related to the viewer as a fantastically gothic and Tim Burton-esque animated segue, and really helps to sell the mythology and horror of Krampus, who punishes the naughty and those who’ve lost hope at Christmas, and it’s pretty clear that Krampus’s minions take a perverse pleasure in tormenting their victims.
While Howard is all gung-ho about fighting back, Tom maintains that the family needs to stay warm and come up with a practical plan to get all of them to safety using a nearby snowplough; this is scuppered, to say the least, then Krampus’s minions attack in full force, driving the survivors to fight back but eventually forcing them out into the blizzard while Omi stays behind to face her nightmare head-on when Krampus arrives in person. Omi’s attempts to appease the beast are met with failure, and Max is soon left all alone when his remaining family members are yanked beneath the snow one by one. While this is quite the abrupt ending for these characters, I’m okay with it as it leads into one of the best scenes of the film; not content with emerging from the chimney like a lumbering devil, Krampus prepares to toss Max’s family into a hellish pit when the boy rejects Krampus’s attempts to leave him behind, as it did Omi all those years ago. Despite Max angrily taking back his wish, and desperately pleading that all he wanted was for his family to be happy at Christmas like they used to be, Krampus simply mocks his tears and, rather than sparing the boy and undoing its evils, drops him into the pit with a vindictive chuckle. Max awakens the next morning to find his family restored, happy and healthy, but any hopes that his ordeal was some horrible nightmare are quickly dashed when he finds a parting gift from Krampus, and the camera pulls back to reveal that Max and his entire family have been trapped within the purgatory of a miscellaneous snow globe in Krampus’s terrifying workshop.
Krampus is a delightfully devilish little Christmas treat. It hits many of the same notes as you’d expect from a Christmas film (consumerism destroying the spirit of Christmas, dysfunctional families struggling to co-exist during the holiday season, and a festive wish gone awry) but puts a haunting twist on it all with some of the most unique monsters brought to life on film. I find the idea of Krampus (a beast I had never heard of until this film) to be incredibly appealing, and the creature’s design and characterisation are worth the price of admission alone. Sadly, it’s not on screen as often as I would like, but the film is littered with some appealing performances by a variety of veteran and character actors; even the kids do a stellar job and, some dodgy CGI aside, the film is really engaging from start to finish. Obviously, one of the things people remember most about Krampus is the incredibly bleak and dark ending, which sees the family presumably forced to relive Christmas morning over and over in a never-ending purgatory, but this, to me, is the perfect way to end the film. Some biting wit and dark comedy ease much of the film’s horror, but it’s still there thanks to some dark and creative shots in the snow-strewn streets and the way Krampus is framed as this monstrous devil, and the downer ending is like the cherry on top of an excellently crafted modern horror classic that’s well worth putting on to add a bit of spice to your Christmas viewing.
Are you a fan of Krampus? Where does it rank for you against other horror Christmas movies? Were you familiar with the Krampus figure before this movie and what do you think of there being this dark opposite of Santa Claus? Were you a fan of the film’s special effects and would you have liked to see more of the titular beast? What did you think to the bleak ending? What are your plans for Christmas Day today? Whatever your thoughts, sign up to comment down or leave a reply on my social media and have a great Christmas!