Michael Dougherty, the man who gave the world Trick ‘R Treat in 2007, has given the entire planet the gift of holiday fear with his new film, Krampus. It’s the perfect combination of scares and hilarity, with eye-popping visuals and a cast of characters that won’t soon be forgotten. More importantly, it has a lot of heart as well, and regardless of whatever horror may ensue the film never loses sight of what matters most this time of year.
Opening with a slow-motion montage of Black Friday madness set the same classic holiday music that is found in every department store this time of year, Krampus wastes no time explaining the problem with Christmas in 2015 by showcasing just how selfish our culture has become. The holidays are supposed to be a time of giving, not taking, but with each passing year we as a society become increasingly closed off from one another. We each want to ensure our families have the best Christmas possible, which is a lot different than wishing everyone could have the best Christmas possible, and such misguided interpretations of the season’s meaning often leads to conflicts. Those conflicts only further distract from the celebration of togetherness we should be focusing on around the holidays; as they continue to worsen, our collective excitement for this time of year continues to drop. Christmas is now viewed by some as more of a burden than a celebration, but Krampus is here to remind us what really matters this time of year.
Max (Emjay Anthony), a young boy on the cusp of becoming a young man, still believes in Santa. He sees the dysfunction in his family and the world around him, but deep down he believes Santa still has the ability to make everything alright, as does his grandmother, Omi (Krista Stadler). The two have hope that this Christmas will be a chance for a fresh start, but things quickly fall apart after a dinnertime argument between family members leads to a letter Max wrote Santa being read aloud. The experience is so humiliating that Max tears his letter into pieces, denouncing his belief in Santa, and tosses the shredded paper into the night sky. He assumes this will be the last he ever sees the note or thinks about the words it contained, but soon an evil spirit begins wreaking havoc on his family home, and Max begins to realize he may have summoned something that could kill everyone he loves.
The name of this ominous spirit is Krampus, otherwise known as the shadow of Santa Claus, and according to Alpine folklore it has existed for hundreds of years. While Santa is knowing for giving, Krampus is known for taking, and what it takes is the soul of anyone who has forgotten the meaning of Christmas. It’s a setup that plays like a fractured fairy tale, which is a comparison made by the characters in the film on more than one occasion, but the horrors that follow are unlike anything previously brought to the silver screen. Krampus, like all powerful beings, has an army of soldiers ready to help carry out any mission, and though they range in size from small to large each has the ability to kill and devour anyone they desire. It’s like every Christmas-related nightmare you could imagine brought to life in one tale, with everything from evil toys to sadistic cookies making an appearance, and it’s executed largely through practical effects that will no doubt keep many viewers up at night.
The victims, or at least those targeted by Krampus, are a veritable who’s who of Hollywood notables. While children in Krampus are largely small players, with Anthony being the most recognizable youth onscreen, the adults involved will no doubt be known by consumers young and old, at least to some degree. There’s Adam Scott and Toni Collette, who play the parents of Max and his sister, as well as Allison Tolman and David Koechner, who play the aunt and uncle whose family comes to visit for the holidays. There’s also an appearance from the iconic Conchata Ferrell, who plays an underappreciated great aunt with a penchant for egg nog. Everyone plays their role well, and as most have never done a full-on horror film before they are afforded the opportunity to showcase skills that have up to this point gone underutilized in their careers. Adam Scott in particular has more to do in this film than any other appearance in his history, and though he’s rarely considered a potential action star he more than holds his own when things become chaotic.
Pacing is the only demon that no one in Krampus can seem to conquer, as the film struggles to maintain its flow in the scenes leading up to the terror being unleashed. The story never flatlines altogether, but when viewing a film where you know things eventually go awry it can be hard to be patient during extended setups. Consumers today want action to happen fast and frequent. While I would argue Krampus more than delivers on the action front in its back half, especially during its climax, there are points early on where you might catch yourself wondering if the story will ever take off. If you can hold out for about 30 minutes, I promise the wait will be worth it. That may be too long for some, but that is only because they don’t know what lies in the later acts of the story. Think Cabin In The Woods-level madness, only with a holiday theme and an even more twisted ending that no one will see coming.
I honestly don’t know if it’s possible to have more fun at the movies than what I experienced while watching Krampus. Filmmaker Michael Dougherty has a gift for creating fractured fairy tales that go above and beyond what is expected of horror today without ever becoming gratuitous or all that adult in nature. Like Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi before him, Dougherty has found a way to scare audiences while also giving them plenty of laughs and lighthearted fun along the way. His films are the ones I imagine genre fans will still be talking about 30 years from now, and Krampus is no exception to this idea. Of all the holiday-themed horror that has ever been released, Krampus is by far the best of the bunch. It’s a one-of-a-kind adventure that has so many twists and surprises that you’re practically forced early to accept the fact that you have no idea what will happen next. And that’s okay because, in the end, it’s the film’s ability to continually surprise movie goers that stands out as the film’s greatest achievement.