There’s something delicious about a horror film that indulges in nasty, grotesque jokes at the expense of innocent – and not so innocent – people. Michael Dougherty’s dark and hilarious Krampus, which jingles its way onto Blu-ray this month, is one such film. It reminds us of the origins of Christmas, and the combination of darkness and light that makes the holiday so special, spectacular, and potentially destructive.
Krampus opens with brawling scene of shoppers on the last days before Christmas, with “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” playing over slow-motion shots of the mayhem. Then it zeroes in on a nativity performance ending in a fracas as Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) and another boy come to blows, apparently over belief in Santa Claus.
The opening sets the tone for the rest of the film: the Christmas spirit has been lost in violence, anger, consumption, and family strife. Max’s home life is no better than the shopping mall brawls: his father (Adam Scott) is distant, his mother (Toni Collette) is obsessed with appearances, his sister obsessed with her phone. When the rest of the family arrives to partake in the festivities, things come to a head and Max finally gives up on the holiday after one too many dinner table battles.
Enter the Krampus – a demonic holiday spirit described by Max’s German grandmother as “the shadow of Saint Nicolas,” who arrives to punish non-believers and drag them off to the underworld. As mayhem cuts loose, jack-in-the-boxes consume small children, gingerbread men attack with nail guns, and teddy bears try to eat your face.
The sharp, satirical spirit of Krampus allows for the indulgence of some very amusing – and occasionally scary – horror conventions, while not losing its underlying theme of belief and respect for a holiday that means much more than gifts under the tree. Unlike more meta horror films, Krampus does take itself seriously. The horror is real, the punishment is not a game, and the sense that this family doesn’t really deserve its fate takes a backseat to the amorality of the Krampus itself. This isn’t about right or wrong, and there’s no real moral judgment to be made – the Krampus is a spirit of punishment for lack of belief, not a reasoning creature. He doesn’t want anything except to carry you off in chains.
A strong cast carries off the reality of Krampus’s horror – there’s no star, just an ensemble of entertaining, flawed, and ultimately good people who have, as it were, lost the holiday spirit. The special effects are an excellent and apparently flawless combination of CGI and practical effects – so much is seen in shadow that the horror, when it comes, is both funny and believable. The violence itself is neither overdone nor ridiculous – it’s a grotesque carnival of vengeance, bizarre and run through with malevolence.
This Blu-ray release of Krampus showcases the film in all its gory glory, maintaining strong contrast in the shifts between light and dark. I’ve had some problems with Blu-ray sound, but thankfully the sound mixing seems pretty good on this one – dialogue doesn’t get lost, and sudden music jumps and sound effects don’t make you spring out of your skin.
The special features included on the Blu-ray are a good mix of the standard deleted scenes, galleries, a gag reel, and director’s commentary, along with some interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes. Anyone interested in the way that films like this are filmed and constructed should take note. Especially impressive are the behind-the-scenes looks under the heading of “Krampus Comes Alive!,” which looks at the casting, the production design, and the practical effects (and stuntmen) that give the film its unique look.
The true butt of the jokes in Krampus is not Christmas, but those who have made Christmas into a holiday of fighting in shopping malls, rampant consumption, and family feuds, all the while ignoring the “spirit” of Christmas – here as dangerous and potentially destructive as it is joyful. As with Dougherty’s inspired Trick ‘R Treat, the holiday has come for revenge on those who disrespect it, and it does so with humor and horror in equal measure.
Krampus is a malevolent, gleeful horror film that makes no apologies for its sheer delight in cinematic mayhem.