All these decades we were warned that Santa Claus “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” Or what? You would not get anything for Christmas? Or maybe a stocking full of coal?
Meanwhile in Europe, most likely in Germany, there originated the story of Krampus, sort of an Anti-Claus, who instead of gift deprivation, dished out punishment to naughty children. Rather than being a jolly fat fellow with a white beard who wears a red outfit, Krampus had curled horns, cloven hooves, a slimy curled tongue, and he enhanced this menacing presence by carrying around a chain.
To this day Germanic and Alpine countries put together Krampusnacht celebrations in early December. But in North America it has only been in the last few years that Krampus has gained attention. Artwork, T-shirts and collectibles of this dark entity are becoming more frequent, as are small celebrations, such as Krampus walks in cities like Portland and New York.
Krampus also has popped up in North American entertainment, making a guest appearance in a season 10 episode of “American Dad!” titled “Minstrel Krampus.” He was even a subject of live-action episodes in TV series “Supernatural” and “Grimm.”
So with all this going on, it is a surprise that Krampus has barely been touched upon in the mini-industry of Christmas-themed horror movies.
Well, thanks to writer-director Michael Dougherty, that no longer is the case. Although “Krampus” is only Dougherty’s second feature-length film as a director, he has built some muscle in the industry as the screenwriter for “X-Men 2” and “Superman Returns,” enabling him to get the backing needed to make a high-profile movie.
Dougherty, an admitted Halloween fanatic, earned his chops in the business, having to deal with a skittish Warner Bros. studio that mishandled his 2007 Halloween anthology “Trick ‘r Treat.” Although it was shuttled off to the direct-to-DVD market, it built a following that is still growing. His monster trick-or-treater Sam has become a popular Halloween mask.
In interviews with Horrorhound and Rue Morgue magazines, Dougherty said that while he likes Christmas too he always believed it lacked the mischief and debauchery of Halloween, and he did some research on Christmas observances of the past. He found a darker side to the celebrations in the old Pagan traditions that were devoted to the acknowledging the arrival of winter solstice. Looking more into the Pagan roots of the holiday, he soon learned about Krampus.
Teaming up with co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Fields, Dougherty has crafted a film in “Krampus” that could become a favorite among fans of Christmas horror movies.
“Krampus” can be seen as an homage to the family-horror, fantasy films of the 1980s such as “Gremlins,” “Critters,” “Poltergeist” and “E.T.,” movies that made an impression on Dougherty when he was growing up.
In “Krampus” there are similarities between the families besieged by this horrible holiday spirit and the Griswolds and their relatives of the classic “Vacation” film series. You might call this main family the less goofy Griswolds since Dougherty and his co-writers declined to give them a last name.
Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are a middle-class couple with a teen daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and son Max (Emjay Anthony), who is still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. Also residing in the home is Tom’s mother from the old country, Omi (Krista Stadler), who by Tom’s own admission, “gets a little weird around Christmas.”
During the opening credits, Dougherty and team take a potshot at the commercialization of Christmas with darkly humorous scenes of holiday shopping chaos and trauma.
Tom and Sarah are going to host a Christmas gathering, as Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman from FX’s “Fargo”), her husband Howard (David Koechner, most recently seen as the scoutmaster-turned-walking-dead in “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and their brood of creepy kids are visiting for the holidays.
This is not a Norman Rockwell Christmas. This is a dysfunctional group. Adding to the volatile family gathering is the usual peripheral relative (remember Aunt Edna in “Vacation”?), this time in the form of Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), the surprise guest who arrives lugging the baggage of bad vibes and overly candid comments.
Sarah is stressed, Tom is trying to keep things calm, Beth is barely engaged in all the hubbub and Max is the one who despite his young age longs for the more joyful Christmases of the past. Typically, things come unglued at the first family dinner, and it’s still only Dec. 23. Max, humiliated by his cousins for still believing in Santa Claus, tears up his letter to Santa and flings the scraps out the window. But instead of floating to the ground, they are sucked up by some power and disappear into the sky.
Soon the weather turns bad with a blizzard moving in. The power is knocked out. That is only the beginning. Max, in his despair, accidentally has summoned the terrifying power of Krampus. In other words, don’t count on Santa and his sleigh to show up this particular Christmas.
Dougherty uses the effective strategy, like that of “Jaws,” of not showing the beast until well into the terror. But there are plenty of other scares along the way. While toys coming to life can be fun and magical in other Christmas tales, in “Krampus” they just become horrifying and deadly. Naturally, the potentially creepiest of toys — clowns and jack-in-the-boxes — are on hand. And after seeing “Krampus,” viewers will never look at gingerbread cookies the same way again.
As the two families are forced to set aside simmering issues while they fight to survive, there comes with this the usual necessity of building trust and learning respect.
Eventually it is Omi who finally enlightens the family as to what is going on, revealing why she gets so weird around Christmas, and leaving poor Max to realize what he unwittingly did.
When Krampus does appear on screen — mostly he is only shown in shadow silhouettes — he is a terrifying presence, surrounded by elves that are the antithesis of those little people happily residing at the North Pole. The Krampus beast was designed and put together by the Weta Workshop, a mostly practical special effects project wherein CGI was only used to erase any controlling wires and poles.
This Krampus goes beyond his job description. It is not just children he goes after. Everybody is on the naughty list here.
Dougherty effectively uses fearful anticipation to stir maximum dread, and the actual on-screen violence is minimal. The most graphic kills are reserved for the suddenly animated objects.
“Krampus” is capped off with an unsettling ending that requires viewers to guess what is going on. Thus, over the holiday meal, people who have seen the movie can discuss whether or not Krampus is done with his work on these two families.