Despite early hesitations, I’m thankfully here to preach the good word about Michael Dougherty’s Krampus. After slapping a PG-13 rating on their snowy thriller, part of me expected Universal to roll out a watered-down version of Trick-r-Treat-Meets-Christmas – but damn was I proven wrong. With a pinch of Amblin and a dash of Joe Dante, Michael Dougherty finds a style deserving of his own name this holiday season.
For those of you who’ve been complaining about the non-existence of Trick ‘r Treat 2, I promise that Krampus will provide the gleeful holiday chaos that makes your patience for more of Dougherty’s Halloween horrors worthwhile. The film might start a bit on the slow side, but when Dougherty’s fantastically fucked-up fairtytale hits its stride, oh what a winter slaughterhouse this picturesque Martha-Stewart-display becomes.
Krampus starts like any typical Christmas Eve meal between family members. Sarah (Toni Collette) prepares a magnificent dinner that receives rude mockery, Tom (Adam Scott) struggles to separate work from joy, and their son Max (Emjay Anthony) just wishes things could be as magical as they used to be. Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman) joins the party with her rambunctious, more homely clan, including her right-wing husband Howard (David Koechner). As the pseudo-Scrooges struggle to find their Christmas spirit, Max grows tired of the forced charade and tears up his letter to Santa. Little does he know, this act of December disrespect beckons an evil spirit who stands for everything Mr. Claus does not. Krampus has come to town… and the only silent nights he brings follow the screams of victims begging for their lives.
From moment one, we’re dragged into a rotten Christmas scenario where the magic has vanished. Dougherty wisely opens his film on a Black Friday “massacre,” as sale-thirsty shoppers knock store workers off ladders in an attempt to grab the year’s hottest toys. Sadder notes of over-commercialization, ignorant bliss, selfish greed, and a complete disregard for humanity warn of our society’s blurred vision when it comes to the holidays, as once again a film reminds us that this is a time for family, love, and cheer. It’s not a new message, but Dougherty ably balances the lost spirit of Xmas with vicious warnings of joyless retribution. Live generously, laugh heartily, love unconditionally – and keep Krampus at bay.
Dougherty scores major points for bringing life to his demonic toy-creatures that burst from their packages. In a time when monsters have become dull, generic and overly-pixelated, Krampus unleashes a brood of hellish holiday gifts who abandon their cute n’ cuddly veneer with wicked ease. Between the child-devouring Jack-In-The-Box and a plush teddy bear sporting sharp fangs, Dougherty transforms innocent childhood memories into deadly creatures like the best nostalgia-preying horror does, down to a gaping Predator mouth on the hungry Jack.
Then of course there’s a trio of angry Gingerbread men, who remind us of mischievous Gremlins from the 80s same-name classic. Once these delectable death-dealers make their appearance, Krampus goes full-throttle into a furious Christmas hellscape that’s full of laughs, gasps, and murderous merriment.
Krampus himself strikes fear because of his minions, as any close-up on his weathered face reveals a mask that’s frozen stiff. Dougherty maneuvers around this obstacle by executing long tracking shots that keep the hoofed scoundrel far in the distance – but close enough for him to leap into focus for a quick snatch.
He’s not just a murderer, though. Krampus is a reminder of humanity lost once we’ve given up on our childhood wonder. The beast only runs rampant when summoned by a total loss of soul, which is a drastic, yet warm reminder of the things we take for granted. Much like the fables of Trick ‘r Treat, where its sack-headed mascot Sam punishes those who disrespect the rules, Krampus does the same for Christmas. If you cross his path, you’ve done something to deserve it – a sick, but more acceptable reality of the film’s message.
One might balk at the slew of comedians that Dougherty assembles, but the collection of victims fit their parts snugly. Take David Koechner for example – where Scouts Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse wasted his talents on ridiculousness, Krampus lets him play the football-worshipping, middle American gun-nut he was always meant to play. Adam Scott benefits from the same sort of typecasting, playing the by-the-books Eagle Scout who grows colder thanks to an obsession with work. Toni Collette stays strong, and Allison Tolman even stronger, but nothing would be the same without Conchata Ferrell’s addition as Aunt Dorothy – the snarky relative we love to hate.
Give credit to the children as well, especially Chef‘s Emjay Anthony. He’s a talented little dude who fights against the horrors of Christmas alongside his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen). He’s easy to care for, and charismatic enough to carry scenes even with his pint-sized heart. You’ll laugh at Queenie Samuel and Lolo Owen, who play two daughters Howard so desperately tries to raise as boys, along with their brother Howard Jr. – the mute, chubby future NFL lineman. But Emjay is the lifeblood of this tale, whose sweet sincerity prevents Krampus from becoming far too dark to connect with such joyous festivities.
Here’s what matters – Krampus is an ass-kicking addition to any Christmas movie marathon. Genre movies like this have been missing from mainstream cinemas for far too long. It’s a story that aims right for the jugular (with PG-13 amounts of blood), and Dougherty is able to keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout scenes of gleeful yuletide chaos. Better yet, the PG-13 rating doesn’t detract in the slightest because gore DOESN’T make a horror movie – storytelling and tension does. Not since Gremlins have the holidays been such a vicious blast, thanks to this horrific Christmas miracle that offers a new, terrifying perspective on holiday cheer. This ain’t your Grandma’s Christmas classic, but it’s a must-see for horror fans this holiday season.
Please, someone stop me before I say it’s ho-ho-horrifying…
Michael Dougherty has another holiday horror hit on his hands in Krampus, a film packed with gleeful Christmas carnage, sweet sentiments, and a few mischievous minions who bring our tinsel-covered nightmares to life.