Written by: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, and Zach Shields
Directed by: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"It's Christmas. Nothing bad is going to happen on Christmas!"
Of the many horrors surrounding adolescence, the inevitable disenchantment with the holidays may sneakily be the worst. At some point, your haywire hormones decide that even Christmas doesn’t feel the same anymore. What was once a magical, exciting time becomes something of a disappointment: rather than wake up to presents under the tree, you’d rather sleep in and avoid your family (which you are convinced absolutely sucks) at all costs. It’s a bummer, and I have not-so-fond memories of trudging through the first Christmas that just felt weird and wrong. Something tells me a similar experience stuck with Michael Dougherty, as he twists these adolescent anxieties into actual trauma with Krampus, a holiday film that couldn’t be further removed from what we expect from the genre.
From the opening credits—which ironically juxtapose the strains of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with hordes of ravenous, violent shoppers—Krampus aims to gut Christmas from the inside out and explore its sinister, pagan side. When we meet pre-teen protagonist Max (Emjay Anthony), he’s not spreading Christmas cheer so much as he’s attempting to pummel it into a bully who’s threatened to ruin an annual holiday pageant. Frustrated that the holidays are not quite what they used to be, Max watches as his family constantly bickers and abandons their annual traditions: his older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) doesn’t have time to watch television specials with him anymore, and his parents (Toni Collette and Adam Scott) seem to be drifting apart. And this is not to mention the arrival of his uncouth extended family, a proposition that puts everyone on edge. It's National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, only with less holiday cheer and more demonic creatures terrorizing everyone.
You know how Krampus is supposed to operate as a holiday movie. Dougherty has framed it in familiar terms: for the briefest of moments, this feels like the sort of movie that might feature the expected platitudes of peace and reconciliation between strained family members. This is how these things are supposed to go after all: straight to the saccharine-filled sentimentality, with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. Anyone familiar with Dougherty should hardly be surprised to learn that Krampus is not that movie—not by a long shot. Even though similar moral sentiments rest at its heart, they’re frozen over by an indelible mean streak that turns Christmas into a sinister proposition. It’s the sort of movie where Max ripping up a letter to Santa Claus is an inciting incident and a point of no return, as it invites the spirit of Krampus—Saint Nick’s shadowy doppelganger—to wreak havoc.
While Dougherty eventually taps into the same mischievousness that’s cemented Trick ‘r Treat a perennial Halloween favorite, Krampus is nonetheless couched in a grim, spooky aesthetic that announces its director’s commitment to turning the season upside-down. Here, a suburban winter wonderland is transformed into a purgatorial blizzard, where the blinding snow conceals an unseen menace whose presence lurks in the distance, waiting to unleash mayhem on the unsuspecting characters. There’s nothing particularly jolly about family members wandering out into the elements, only to disappear in a hellscape of howling winds and swirling snow. Krampus will be remembered for its eventual silliness, but its mean-spirited soul anchors the proceedings.
At first, it looks as if Dougherty is a little too eager to zip right into the overblown silliness. We watch as Krampus bounds from rooftop-to-rooftop as a terrified character looks on in horror before being stalked by the fiend, and it feels like a bit too much, too soon; however, Dougherty cleverly stages the sequence to avoid giving up the ghost—and this is not to mention how the climax ends with a jaw-dropping death that all but announces that Krampus is not fucking around. Laughs ultimately abound (it never strays too far from your mind that Hollywood let Michael Dougherty make a goddamn Krampus movie, which is delightfully silly), yet its effectiveness rests in its commitment to being mean. Beneath its glib, almost festive wrapping, it’s hiding a legitimate lump of coal.
But, like any present, the joy is in tearing through the wrapping to uncover what’s inside. Dougherty obliges here by practically joining in himself, as he frantically flings whatever thought comes to mind at the audience, like a sort of demented Santa Claus handing out twisted versions of toys. Krampus’s minions—which shrewdly allow the title character himself to lurk in the background—begin to terrorize the family in the form of a sinister jack-in-the-box and monstrous elves. By the time David Koechner faces off against an army of killer gingerbread men, it’s easy to see Krampus for what it is: the best Empire or Full Moon picture that Charles Band never directed, and I mean that in the most sincerely flattering way possible. Krampus masterfully channels the rambunctious spirit of Brand’s most famous (or notorious) output but realizes it with the skill and budget rarely (if ever) afforded those Z-movies.
Part of that skill involves recognizing the importance of well-drawn characters. After creating such a memorable assortment of pint-sized foils, it must have been tempting to simply indulge the chaos and carnage of Krampus, but Dougherty sketches a dysfunctional family that stays just on the right side of the line between annoying and endearing. Scott is the relatively straight-laced patriarch of a family barely holding its shit together, a plight that’s only made more relatable by the arrival of relatives that manage to poke at the already volatile fault lines. Koechner and his clan represent the polar opposite to Scott’s affluent suburbanites: arriving garish gas guzzling Hummer that doubles as a small armory, this bunch of mouth-breathers hails from the sticks, where self-reliance and sheer grit (and shotguns) can overcome any problem. There’s little doubt they’re all Trump supporters.
Again, it’d be easy to hone in on this and allow the audience to vicariously indulge fantasies about watching their own awful, ignorant relatives be torn apart by Christmas spirits. This is not to say Dougherty doesn’t dispatch many of these red state hicks (it’s almost shocking just how far Krampus goes considering its PG-13 rating)—it’s just that it’s not always exactly gleeful. Somewhere along the way, everyone (including the bratty kids and a boorish terror of an aunt) become tolerable despite their flaws—sort of like a real family. It’s in Max’s realization of this that Krampus captures the spirit of a holiday movie, albeit in the most twisted way possible (let’s just say that the animated interludes and old relative’s tales don’t usually involve entire families being taken away by a sinister demon).
Of course, Dougherty has little interest in wallowing too thickly in the sentiment typically attached to the genre, even when he appears to be headed disastrously towards it during the climax. This, too, is another mischievous trick, however, the last in a long line of playful twists and turns that cements Krampus’s status as an anti-Christmas classic. While it arrives at the same moral as its holiday predecessors, it does so in bleak fashion by tapping into the dark side of Christmas lore. For so long, this bizarre mythology has existed as a curiosity, with the more benevolent Santa Claus taking center stage to keep children in line. Krampus takes all of those childhood and adolescent anxieties and turns them into pure nightmare fuel—if nothing else, this is a film that acknowledges just how terrifying Christmas can be and sets out to petrify children accordingly.
If you’ve ever wondered about the “scary ghost stories” Andy Williams crooned about, Krampus fills that void tremendously. Imagine if Home Alone ended with Kevin McCallister actually making his family disappear or if A Christmas Story ended with Ralphie actually shooting his eye out. That’s Krampus—a totally wicked, mean, and hilarious holiday tale that reminds us that Christmas isn’t always cheerful. Here's hoping Hollywood allows Michael Dougherty to keep fucking up the holiday calendar in the future.
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