by Coop Cooper
Holiday movies are tricky, but unless they take place during Halloween, holiday horror movies are the trickiest. There aren’t many great ones to speak of that take place around Christmas; even fewer that are aimed at younger crowds. Michael Dougherty made a name for himself as a director with the highly underrated Halloween movie “Trick r’ Treat” and now he seems hellbent on cornering the market on all holiday horror movies if “Krampus” is any indication.
Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) is a short-fused preteen whose only wish for Christmas is that his bitter, argumentative family gets along so they can all enjoy the holiday like they used to. Of course this doesn’t happen and in a fit of frustration, Max tears up his heartfelt letter to Santa and scatters it to the winds, inadvertently summoning ‘Krampus’, the demonic ‘Shadow of St. Nick’ who punishes those who defy the spirit of the season. As Krampus and his minions besiege the Engel home, the family bands together like never before in order to survive. But Krampus is unrelenting and Omi Engel, Max’s German grandmother, knows more about the demon than she’s letting on.
“Krampus” channels many other classic Christmas stories, plus a few new ones, and mashes them up into a nearly pitch-perfect tale. It’s got the sweet and sour attitude of both “A Christmas Story” and “Christmas Vacation” with a hint of “Bad Santa”. It has some elements of “Rare Exports” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It carries the same moral message as “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It’s even got a bit of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Beetlejuice” thrown in for good measure. However, the closest relative to “Krampus” is the 1984 Joe Dante monster classic “Gremlins” (bet you forgot that took place during Christmas, didn’t you?), which definitely pushed the limits of what qualifies as a PG kids movie and managed to solidify itself as one of the most iconic pop culture films of the decade.
Let’s talk a bit more about the tone of “Krampus” which is where I think the film succeeds so beautifully. It starts in a brilliant way, showing all the nastiness the holiday season can bring: A shopping riot at a megastore, people punching each other over the last toys on the shelves, little kids fighting during a Christmas pageant while the audience gleefully films it on their phones… just to point out how out-of-hand the season can get. Then dinner with the Engel family brings out more of the nastiness. His exasperated parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) try to keep it together as they dread the arrival of the mother’s clueless sister (Allison Tolman) and her ultra-macho husband (David Koechner). Max’s neanderthal cousins torment him while his great aunt (Conchata Ferrell) drinks and insults everybody in the room. Meanwhile, Max’s unhelpful sister (Stefania LaVie Owen) plans to ditch him and the family to spend Christmas with her boyfriend down the street. They seem like prime candidates for Krampus’s wrath, but you see glimmers of real familial love, especially when they really have to come together to protect each other.
The only problem I noticed in the film is a long lull in the action about halfway through. Once that lull passes, the thrills and chills don’t let up until the end.
The second best part of “Krampus” is the production design, including the creatures. Dougherty’s “Trick r’ Treat” was also rich in scary creatures and fun settings and it’s obvious the same creativity was tapped in creating the monsters for “Krampus”. From the killer toys to the evil elves, you definitely get a “Gremlins” vibe to it all. As for the title villain himself, people might be a little confused as to what exactly they are seeing when he shows his face. To me, it looks like he’s wearing a mask. A mask made of… Yikes. It gives me shudders just to think of it.
As “Gremlins” helped to facilitate the PG-13 rating in the 80’s, “Krampus” earns it legitimately. It’s not gory, but it is ooky. It’s scary in a fun way, but not horrifying. It’s mean-spirited but turns sweet-hearted and ends with a creepy, yet clever twist that raises a few new questions. Like Dougherty’s “Trick r’ Treat” which was unfairly swept under the rug by the studios, “Krampus” may have to earn its cult classic status on video and TV, but I do believe one day it will be remembered as fondly as “Gremlins”. Dougherty has so much talent in this genre niche, I imagine Tim Burton must be turning green with envy right about now.
Rating: 4 and ½ out of 5 stars