The opening of Michael Dougherty’s 2015 horror comedy, Krampus, is the antithesis of what the holidays should symbolize. It’s a slow-mo montage of seasonal stressors, from rioting customers and crowded stores, to the poor defenseless employees who are doomed to deal with the craziness. With all of this Christmas hullabaloo, it’s no wonder young Max (Emjay Anthony) loses his holiday spirit and accidentally unleashes an ancient demonic creature looking to punish those who have abandoned hope and faith. Easy mistake!
When we first meet the film’s dysfunctional Engel family (including parents played by Toni Collette and Adam Scott), tensions are already high. The family is dreading the arrival of Max’s aunt, uncle and insufferable cousins, and all the surrounding chaos causes him to question the true meaning of Christmas. The Engels grin and bear it until the cousins mock Max’s letter to Santa, embarrassing him; he rips up the letter and tosses it out the window. Once the boy’s holiday spirit is crushed, the hoofed and horned Krampus begins its horrific descent, bringing along a misfit gang of demonic toys. From murderous gingerbread men to Der Klown, a terrifying clown/jack-in-the-box hybrid, Krampus almost feels like a live-action version of Jack Skellington’s sack of “presents.” As family members get knocked off in the campiest ways possible, Max discovers there’s a lesson to learn among the madness, and desperately tries to make everything right again.
The origins of Krampus date back to pre-Christian doctrine. Christmas, after all, started as a supernatural Pagan holiday aimed to thwart off dark winter spirits and other bad juju. In certain countries, Krampus was a companion to Saint Nicholas, though it varies by region. Some texts claim that the half-goat, half-demon figure is the incarnation of the Horned God of the Witches, lining up with the early Pagan beliefs. Other histories hint that while Krampus was derived from Paganism, it was then adapted into the modern notion of the Christian devil. Though the true origins of Krampus are unknown, its features remain largely the same: it’s hairy and fanged, with the hooves and horns of a goat; it sometimes dons robe-like attire, mimicking modern-day portrayals of Santa Claus. Krampus encapsulates the darker, more twisted version of Ol’ Saint Nick, the two together comprising a yin-yang-like symbiosis.
Dougherty uses the Krampus folklore to pull off the Christmas version of what he accomplished with Trick ’r Treat. Here, he trades in the jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween candy for Christmas lights and Yuletide cheer, using seasonal devices to send a message—a warning, rather—about the dangers of not appreciating the holiday, of losing hope, of not staying in the moment and loving your family. As we saw with Trick ’r Treat's Sam, the orange-clad mini-monster with the most fab footie pajamas, tradition is to be respected or a price will be paid. Sam served as a protector of the Halloween spirit, punishing wicked evil-doers and flippant non-believers who fail to follow the rules.
Similarly, Krampus notes our collective holiday gripes while simultaneously tugging on our feelings of nostalgia, using clever and creepy ways to subvert tropes. Once again, Dougherty’s style and story are widely original and creative. He beautifully creates atmosphere, from a blizzardy winter wonderland to a festively decorated home full of wreaths, presents, and lights. The set design, attention to detail, and ambiance make us, as viewers, feel all warm and cozy inside. Once things go haywire, Dougherty doesn’t skimp on the terror, employing a nice mix of CGI and practical effects for his many creatures. In addition to the aforementioned freak shows (seriously, Der Klown is a thing of nightmares), there’s also a teddy bear with demonic eyes and teeth like a shark, and a pack of uninvited elves who smash through windows and drag family members to their doom. The monsters of Krampus are not to be tussled with.
Krampus is a gorgeously shot fairy tale gone wrong for horror fans who grew up on campy creature features like Gremlins and Ghoulies. As Dougherty once again perfects the horror comedy genre, he declares his undying love for holidays and teaches us and his characters the value of keeping the faith and never giving up. The movie’s ambiguous ending is both unsettling and shocking, designed to make us think and re-evaluate our own experiences. Overall, the film’s purpose is twofold. Krampus can certainly be viewed as surface level entertainment, an irreverent romp full of candy canes, presents and amusing monsters. But it’s also an ominous tale warning us to never take anything for granted in this life. Max’s lesson is one all of us should heed for many Christmases to come.