Krampus is a horror comedy. Let’s get that right out of the way, because it was a huge discussion and sticking point with my family. There was a misunderstanding from the start that Michael Dougherty’s movie about the ancient evil sidekick to St. Nicholas was meant to be more serious than it really is, and that ended up affecting the moviegoer’s pre-existing expectations quite a lot. While I’m not one to have expectations whatsoever about a film, I realize it’s inevitable, and that sometimes it’s difficult to pull oneself away from that ingrained bias. So here’s a warning right now: Krampus is a horror comedy.
I bring that up not to diss my parents – sorry, Dad – but to highlight something about Dougherty’s film. The comedy in Krampus is legitimately funny, but it’s also intensely darker than the jokes may appear on the surface. The usual, standard fare is here, centering on consumerism and the nearly forced acceptance of family during Christmas with whom one may not normally associate any other time of the year; those jokes land, albeit in a mocking way, but the real pervasive darkness surrounding Krampus is that Dougherty and his team – writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields – don’t offer a heartwarming conclusion to those points. Christmas has devolved into a smorgasbord of desserts and presents, of interaction with shitty family members (disclaimer: I don’t have any of those) and the mad dash to trample anyone in the way of your toaster, and Krampus simply identifies that trait and then uses its monstrous antagonist to raze it to the ground.
The film follows the Engel family just before Christmas as they have their family over for a get-together for the holidays. Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are struggling through this Christmas, and their children don’t have it any better – Max (Emjay Anthony) gets in fights at school with those who say Santa’s not real, and Beth (Stefania LaVie Owens) is going through the normal adolescent rebellion stage. It doesn’t help that Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Allison Tolman), Sarah’s brother-in-law and sister, are the gun-toting rednecks of the family coming to stay for three days with their annoying Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).
Dougherty sets the stage for the hilarity, introducing the usual holiday hijinks in admittedly generic fashion. The characters lack depth, and a lot of their problems – especially the hints that Tom works too much – are given short shrift. But Krampus is often about circumventing the normal tropes of holiday movies, and first it needs to establish them. It’s a method that works despite the obvious drawbacks of using stock characters, and the first act of the film is a strong one that establishes comedy before stepping into the dark shadow of Krampus’ appearance.
When He does appear, things really shift into place. Dougherty recognizes the traits that make the ancient being scariest – his cloaked appearance, and his immense physique, are two of the most iconic ideas of the Krampus myth, and the monster’s design highlights that right away during a freak blizzard that masks his movement outside the house. The blizzard effects are wondrous, and they create an intensely cold feeling that anyone living in a snow-prone area should know. But most effective is the atmosphere of being out in the weather, especially during Beth’s tense walk through poor visibility conditions – if one hasn’t experienced a blizzard in the dark, then take note of Krampus‘ effects, because it manages to effectively recreate how much the world changes once snow has obscured vision.
Krampus himself is a minute part of the film, though, because he employs others to do his work. Gingerbread men, evil toys, and elves all accompany him, and Krampus occasionally feels like a set of short stories on Christmas in much the same way that Trick ‘r Treat does for Halloween – the action plays out in vignettes, and each of them feels wholly their own confined story. Krampus draws from a variety of other Christmas tales with its monster ideas (the Silent Night, Deadly Night toy films in particular), but it always feels original to this film, especially with the design of each of its monsters.
The middle lags a bit, with Dougherty unsure how to progress during an eye of the storm where the characters huddle up within the safe confines of the house, the fireplace roaring bright to keep Krampus from coming down the chimney. But a claymation sequence, a dark reimagining of the annual classic cartoons like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty, keeps things interesting. Dougherty continually gives homage to the classics that have shaped Christmases for years, and the way he dissects these holiday rituals is both funny and disturbing.
And that’s exactly where Krampus needs to be, at the corner of humorous and horrific. Dougherty wants the audience to have a bit of a chuckle at the ways Krampus exacts his punishments, but the disturbing part of it all is that Max wished for it. Krampus isn’t some monster that comes for no reason, terrorizing groups of families; he only fulfills the secret hopes harbored by those who call out to him. Krampus plays with this, and it very nearly swings to the other side of the spectrum with a heartwarming happy ending where each person gets what they want for Christmas and resolves their deep-seated conflicts. But Dougherty doesn’t stop there – he laughs at the Christmas Carol-esque transformation to good, as though an encounter with evil can immediately change someone like Scrooge’s visits with ghosts.
Because there is no going back with Krampus. One can’t simply take back a wish and expect it to be honored. It is not reversible, despite Krampus’ seemingly endless powers. Krampus appears to have a Christmas-appropriate holiday ending, but its deeper meaning is apparent in its closing zoom-out: wishes entrap, they can’t be recalled. And by the time they’ve been wished, it’s too late. No amount of Christmas magic can change that. And so Krampus, despite a series of very small flaws, reminds that we should be good for goodness’ sake, because we get one shot at it – and fortunately, Dougherty manages to keep Krampus on Santa’s Recommend list.