So, a little over a couple of years ago, the Austrian Alpine legend of Krampus was barely a blip on the radar in North America save for some Germanic communities, and a certain episode of American Dad! didn’t do much to boost its popularity- in fact, American Dad! has more of a cult fanbase than its parent show Family Guy. But on the upside, thanks to the hype surrounding the trailer for the horror comedy Krampus, Krampus might just become a thing. There was a Krampus parade here in Edmonton just this past Saturday- which was also when I went and saw the movie. Additionally, there’s a number of Krampus movies on the way (or just generally darker themed Christmas movies) and even a mockbuster, called Krampus: The Reckoning, which was released a month ago. All this seems to have fallen at the feet of the trailer for the new horror comedy Krampus, which seems to have gotten people interested in the legend. Hell, since seeing it on Saturday, I’ve talked with friends who really enjoyed it as much as I did. In fact, today, one even told me that he wants to organize a Krampus parade in his city. If this should tell you something, it’s that the newfound fascination with the Christmas Devil is little more than glorified cultural appropriation or German Weeabooism- it’s the long overdue breakthrough of a possible new Christmas custom, being elevated from known in circles to a huge international tradition.
I may sound like I’m exaggerating, but consider the movie’s director- Michael Dougherty. Not only is he an intelligent dude, but he previously made the much-loved cult classic Trick R Treat, which has a gigantic cult following and a very loyal one at that. Krampus seems to be on its way to developing a similar cult classic, and I don’t think any film released this year is more deserving than Krampus. It’s been an admittedly interesting year for film, if a good portion of the reviews on this website are anything to swear by, and there’s been an interesting amount of pleasant surprises on all fronts. Krampus was a film I went into for good, scary Christmas stuff and I walked out with surprisingly more than that. In fact, Krampus is strangely more of a Christmas movie than a lot of Christmas movies released in the past few years. Unlike alternative Christmas movies such as Bad Santa and The Night Before, which I’ve also reviewed, the spirit of Christmas is front and center here, but similarly to those movies, it doesn’t beat you over the head with it, either. Rather, loss of the spirit of Christmas is the main theme, and in a hilarious twist, it’s why the characters are in trouble here.
It’s also another movie where Toni Collette has to put up with supernatural shit as a mother, and something where Adam Scott isn’t an asshole.
Warning: potential spoilers ahead
The story for Krampus is quite simple. It’s a few days to Christmas, and little Max (Emjay Anthony) is stuck in the middle of yet another Christmas to survive rather than experience, thanks to his German-American family not getting along. It’s hinted to throughout much of the first act that this has been happening for a few years now, but this year is where it reaches its utter nadir. Just about the one person he gets along with with is Omi, his grandmother, who understands English better than she speaks it (the same way Max seems to understand German better than he speaks it). He can’t handle his workaholic dad Tom (Adam Scott) and easily rattled mother Sarah (Toni Collette) seeming so distant from each other, and we’ve barely just scratched the surface. Their relatives from Sarah’s side come to join, and tensions between the families prevent everyone from having a good time- but most of all, Max fucking hates their guts. After Tom tries to console him (but fails), Max takes the letter he wrote to Santa Claus (which was read aloud during dinner by his mischevious cousins) and rips it to shreds, tossing it out the window. After this, the snowstorm of a decade hits their neighbourhood and the power is out for whole blocks. And as if Christmas in a house full of obnoxious family wasn’t bad enough, the power is out. While out to see if her boyfriend’s house has power, the family daughter Beth (Stefania Owen) goes missing after an encounter with a horned, hooded figure, and shit hits the fan quickly- her family is next, resulting in the revelation that their loss of Christmas spirit has resulted Krampus taking over their house. From there on, pretty much what you’d expect happens.
Krampus is a film that’s hard to review properly without majorly spoiling, because much of its charm rests solely on the bizarre imagery. Knowing Dougherty, you can expect tons of it here, and it’s just one of many reasons why Krampus is just so fucking good. Almost everything about it, is a sign of so much love being poured into the final product. You have a cast who are clearly enjoying doing what they’re doing, you have tons of nostalgia and references to 1980s cult Christmas flicks (Christmas Vacation and Gremlins being the main major influences) as well as the classic tales like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life– in fact, the first thing you see after the opening credits is a TV in a kitchen showing the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. Like those two films, the main theme is the loss of Christmas spirit, except whereas those movies are glorified “what if” situations, Krampus cranks up the cynicism and sends Krampus their way, terrorizing the shit out of them with evil Jack in the Boxes, evil dolls and even evil gingerbead cookies! And the weird part is, it works in every way imaginable. As a horror movie, it’s terrifying. As a comedy, it’s hilarious, and it balances both well to the point where either shows up in the the same scene and it still feels cohesive. Something like David Koechner being attacked by evil gingerbread men and parents being attacked by an evil jack in the box could be in the same scene together and it would still really feel cohesive as a whole.
Perhaps the best thing about this approach to the subject matter is how it shows Krampus’ invasion of their home as a very real situation. Krampus is shown in glimpses until the final third, and we feel his presence through his henchmen and the threatening atmosphere. For example, the first thing we see of his reign of terror is a hidden snow snake of some sort that never shows itself- and then the film gradually builds with the addition of additional details such as his iconic hook appearing in the fireplace, evil gingerbread men, evil toys in the attic and so forth. It’s clear that the biggest influence in the horror aspect was Gremlins, and there’s tons of wonderful scenes that conjure memories of our favourite cute but potentially dangerous Mogwais. Beyond that, we see the characters very much affected by the situation too. These aren’t the most likeable characters by any stretch- in fact, it’s established pretty early on that they’re not likeable, and some are downright hateable. And so there’s also a sick joy from watching them get what they deserve, however towards the end, when the comedy becomes less apparent and the characters are in legitimate danger, you start to really feel nervous for them. In fact, the last 20 minutes of Krampus are among some of the most intense I have seen in a movie in ages. The situation has become quite real for the characters and numerous family members get picked off one by one, which makes it incredibly hard to stomach watching Max and his cousins in danger. This is definitely helped by the great performances from the cast, especially Adam Scott’s and Emjay Anthony’s performances.
If there’s any downside to the film at all, it’s that the ending is a tad predictable, but this is just a small hiccup in a brilliant 98 minutes. Krampus is bound to become known as a modern Holiday cult classic and a Christmas tradition for many years to come- hell, I already can’t wait for the blu-ray to come out so I can watch it with my family every Christmas (just a shame I’ll most likely have to wait a year to do so). With the right cast, excellent cinematography and brilliant direction by Michael Dougherty, excellent blend of laughs and scares, and even quite a few curveballs thrown our way, Krampus is a wonderful little horror comedy for the Grinch in all of us, and gets my highest recommendation.