Krampus has reached the internet ubiquity level of bacon - yes, it’s a thing you really enjoyed but once every dweeb with a ThinkGeek account discovered it you found yourself annoyed at the very mention of the thing. Honestly, I never imagined that I would find bacon to be irritating, but I never imagined the power of the internet.
Likewise I never thought Krampus would find himself the subject of repetitive pop culture love. In Germanic folklore Krampus was the dark side of Christmas, the entity who came to punish the children who had been bad, the ones Saint Nick was ignoring. Krampus was weird and pagan and perfectly suited to oddball kids who wanted to bring something twisted to the holidays. And then all of a sudden he became a goddamned meme, something trotted out by the same kind of people who can’t stop talking about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I’m sure someone somewhere on Fark has made a Krampus out of bacon.
But that ain’t Michael Dougherty’s style. Dougherty clearly knows Krampus. He’s not someone who discovered Krampus in a Buzzfeed video. Dougherty doesn’t think Krampus is silly or cute, and he’s not interested in meme-ifying the figure from legend. Dougherty knows why Krampus was scary hundreds of years ago, and he knows why Krampus fascinated the kinds of kids who scratched pentagrams into their Catholic school desks. And that’s the Krampus in his movie.
You probably know Michael Dougherty from his modern classic Trick ‘r Treat. I’m going to level with you: Krampus is no Trick ‘r Treat. At about 30 or so minutes in a larger Trick ‘r Treat-esque Christmas horror anthology Krampus would be an all-timer. As a standalone film clocking in at 98 minutes Krampus is really solid, really fun and, most importantly, completely traumatizing. This PG-13 movie is guaranteed to give an entire generation of children nightmares for the rest of their lives.
The basic premise is that troubled kid Max (Emjay Anthony) hates the way Christmas has become devalued. But because he’s a kid in a Michael Dougherty movie he expresses this by being a sullen weirdo who gets into fights and who rips up his sweet letter to Santa (all he wants for Christmas is happiness for his extended family) and in doing so invites the wrathful Krampus into the neighborhood. Trapped inside his home Max and his family - dad Adam Scott, mom Toni Collette, uncle David Koechner, aunt Alison Tolman and assorted siblings and cousins and an old, wise German grandma - must survive Christmas eve as Krampus and his minions wreak havoc, killing neighboring families and then picking them off one-by-one. It’s Gremlins meets Night of the Living Dead filtered through a syphilitic Rankin Bass Christmas special.
The script, by Dougherty and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields, gets into the good stuff impressively quickly. The family is boarded up and dealing with murderous gingerbread men early in the story, and there’s not a lot of time spent on people not believing the horrific madness unfolding around them. Dougherty gets right to the meat of it. That works against the movie a bit, as it turns the second act into something of a waiting game, but the film very early on makes it clear that it is willing to kill anyone, so that waiting game has more tension than normal. After that first kill you realize everyone is on the chopping block.
Dougherty plays with expectations; Koechner and his family are pretty broadly comedic, but the film humanizes them (just in time to do horrible things to them). Many of the characters have hidden sides to them, and they react to the stresses of their unique siege scenario in surprising (and often badass) ways. It all works, but again, at 30 minutes it would have all been legendary; at 98 it kind of stretches into being quite good.
What is better than quite good is the design of the beasts, especially Krampus himself. It’s insane to me that the design of this monster - he appears to be wearing Santa Claus’ ripped-off face for chrissake - fits into a PG-13 movie. The murderous gingerbread men are more conventional, but then Dougherty introduces really chilling looking elves in pagan masks, and then there are toys gone bad that are absolutely terrifying. A rabid teddy bear is silly scary, but a tree topper angel gone mad is frightening, and there’s a jack-in-the-box monster that has all the terror of the Poltergeist clown AND a huge, tooth-filled, vaginally wet mouth that swallows children whole.
Take this as a warning or a recommendation: these monster designs will fuck up your younger children. They will fuck them up hard.
Perhaps the most brilliant part of Krampus is the ending, a wicked little coda that proves Dougherty has the brain of the Crypt Keeper. It’s delightfully dark and twisted, and it’s one cackling, pun-filled speech away from being an EC Comics finale. If the film feels a bit long in the middle it’s all worth it to get there.
Dougherty’s a terrific filmmaker; out of all the guys working today obsessed with Amblin he’s one of the few - maybe the only one? - whose movies look like they could actually be from that period. But what I love about his duo of holiday movies is the way he subverts that Amblin feel; his movies are always meaner than Spielberg would allow, but they always have a safe, smiling face. That’s what makes their inner nastiness hit all the harder.