Director: Michael Dougherty
Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner
Spoilers Within: Yes
Nearing 30, there comes a point where you’ve seen nearly all there is to offer with regards to Christmas films, so when a new one gets released it feels more a momentous occasion than it probably should.In seeking one that I can claim as my own tradition – as opposed to latching onto childhood classics (Home Alone), or those that predated my generations existence (It’s A Wonderful Life) – there’s a lot of wading through total garbage to find something contemporary that’s not only fresh but also has potential for longevity. Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, while not entirely meeting my (admittedly lofty) conditions, comes the closest to ticking all the boxes of an exciting seasonal film.
Parents Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette), are making the finishing touches to their decorative and culinary Christmas preparations after their son Max (Emjay Anthony) gets into a shopping mall scuffle that’s part A Christmas Story and a touch Jingle All The Way. Opening with such a pessimistic clash of consumerism and kinship sets us up for a fantastically grouchy tone, where every character sports a gloomy outlook and a complete disinterest in their distant relatives. No one here is particularly nice per se – except maybe Scott’s compassionate father – but given the familial hand they’ve been dealt, their bitterness and disrespect is wholly justifiable. These relations – led by Alison Tolman and David Koechner, with Conchata Ferrell’s irascible Aunt Dorothy and aggravating offspring in tow – are boorish morons, slinging insults in response to cordial welcomes and generally being completely unbearable houseguests. When the preordained onslaught begins, you’re left excited to see these total shitheels at the whim of Krampus and his company of nightmarish freaks.
The idea of taking an established folkloric tale and weaving it through a lens of horror is nothing new – for every vengeful snowman of Jack Frost, there’s the savage Santa Claus of Rare Exports – and Krampus comes with its own pre-written horror mythology and centuries of similar fables to draw from. The Krampus of the myths is an anthropomorphic biped described as “half-goat, half-demon” who, during the Christmas season, punishes those children who’ve misbehaved. It’s the Eastern European antithesis of getting treats and gifts from Santa, and traditionally, it’s this towering beast that punishes the children instead of the miserable lump of coal threatened to those in parts of Western Europe. In this sense, Krampus already has a journey and destination laid out for the creators, so while there are very few surprises in the direction it takes, Dougherty (and writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields) make the most of this bleak template and run with it.
A great choice in the deliverance of the story is in the location: setting the majority of the film within their home and the surrounding snowbound suburb isolates their characters without interference from their neighbours. This is their story, and its expressed in a way that rightly ignores everyone else: it’s plausible a neighbour would peer from their frosty window to see that nothing has changed, all the while this extended family are under attack. Staying within their home gives it a welcomed essence of a home invasion horror with a twist, and Krampus’ strong suit is in building up the house as a tangible, adaptable character, with each room seeing a part of the action: the kitchen hosting voracious gingerbread men, the living room a sinister chimney, and the attic becomes home to a host of abandoned toys and creatures that put Jules Cook and Bob Bucks’ production and practical effects to excellent use.
A frustrating aspect of it isn’t in the characters (despite Krista Stadler’s Omi serving as nothing but expository sage), nor in the typically arranged dramatic moments that stall the action with loquacious chit-chat, but in the title itself. Nominally identifying it as Krampus does the film a major disservice, robbing the reveal of the creature and entirely dampening the mystery shrouding the foggy neighbourhood. Had it been given another name -(I posit The Shadow of Saint Nicholas, a nod to the script that’s cryptic enough to not reveal too much) – there would have been more surprises, as the beast would have been left to speculation until its full reveal. (I suppose this isn’t a criticism on the film itself, and I imagine the name Krampus wouldn’t mean much to those who are unaware of the fiction, so it’s more a complaint that will go completely unchanged than anything else.)
Regardless of niggling title changes, sluggish character chatter and some forced occasions of character bonding, Michael Doughtery’s second stab at a seasonal horror comedy (after the wonderful Hallowe’en anthology Trick ‘r Treat) is as humorously and bleakly enjoyable as that which I’d been seeking. Krampus takes a dour view on humanity and consumerism and ends on a coda that rips contrived happy endings to shreds: there’s little optimism here, and all the better for it.