Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material
Score: 4 out of 5
One key part of the mythology of Christmas, at least in America, is that Santa Claus has a list of who's naughty or nice. The nice, obviously, get presents under the tree... but is a lump of coal in a stocking really much of a punishment for someone who's been naughty? Well, that little bit of folklore actually came about through a sanitization of the older mythos. You see, originally (especially in Austria and Bavaria, where the tradition has undergone a revival in recent years), there was a dark mirror of St. Nick, a figure called Krampus who served to punish the naughty by carrying them away (to be drowned, eaten, or taken to Hell; it varies) in a giant sack or bathtub that he carries on his back. If the promise of presents from Santa was the carrot to get kids to behave well come Christmastime, the threat of getting spirited away by Krampus was the stick. It's a tradition that's been imported to the US in recent years, mostly through the internet, so it's natural that, before long, they were gonna make a movie out of it.
In this case, we lucked out. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty isn't new to holiday horror, having made the superb Halloween anthology film Trick 'r Treat several years back, and Krampus is in much the same wheelhouse in terms of style and themes. As much as it lays into the modern holiday season, defined by crass commercialism (exemplified in an opening credits montage filled with Black Friday mayhem) and families that will use the occasion to scream at one another, it does so in order to reconstruct the true meaning of Christmas: giving, family, and love. The fact that it does so in the form of a wicked horror-comedy in the vein of Gremlins is just icing on the cake. While this film is PG-13, it has guts to spare and never felt like it was holding back, and even with a wobbly finale (albeit one that redeemed itself with the last shot) it still made for one of the best horror films of the year and one of the best holiday horror films in a very long time.
The film follows a suburban family -- parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), their adolescent son Max, their teenage daughter Beth, and the German grandmother Omi -- as they prepare to celebrate Christmas with their extended family, composed of Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman) and her husband Howard (David Koechner), their kids Howie Jr., Stevie, Jordan, and newborn Chrissy, and Aunt Dorothy. The culture clash is extreme -- Tom and Sarah's side of the family is very uptight and white-picket-fence, while Linda and Howard's, while just as rich, has more in common with the Robertsons from Duck Dynasty, showing up in a Hummer with sons and daughters alike wearing hunting jackets while complaining about the weird food Sarah's cooking for dinner. Fighting is inevitable, causing Max to retreat to his room and renounce Christmas... which invites a certain horned, cloven-hoofed visitor to town, burying Tom and Sarah's subdivision in a mountain of snow and cutting the power. It doesn't take long for people to start disappearing and the family to realize something's wrong, especially once their house is put under siege by Krampus and his minions.
The first thing you need to know about this film is that it's not a pure, gritty, bone-crunching horror flick. There's always a certain degree of intentional whimsy and goofiness in the air, as befitting a movie about a family on Christmas, and it doesn't take itself too seriously. Krampus and his servants may look monstrous, but they're twists on traditional Christmas iconography -- evil dolls, toy robots, gingerbread cookies, and teddy bears make up the ranks of Krampus' army, we get monster elves later on, and the big guy himself looks like an evil, demonic version of Santa Claus. This film is fully aware of how ridiculous it can get, and more than once, it plays the monsters' attacks for laughs as much as it does for horror. We get the family dog chowing down on a killer gingerbread man, another one luring the fat kid to his doom, a giant clown Jack-in-the-box swallowing a girl whole, all the monsters doing creepy giggles and cheers (the growling is reserved for only Krampus himself and his elves), and Tom wondering why in the blue hell Howard brought his guns with him to a Christmas get-together. It's a fine balance this film has to walk, but it nails it, lending the bad guys true menace (especially with their amazing, freaky, mostly practical-effects designs) and crafting some haunting visuals of snowed-over suburbia while also letting the human characters react in ways that show as much great comic timing as anything. The cast is outstanding, with everybody getting a chance to shine and almost nobody, out of a cast of a dozen protagonists, feeling out of place at all. While many of them are assholes, they're fleshed-out human beings rather than irredeemable monsters who exist just to die to the roar of the crowd, and even the worst of them have some redeeming value, shown as they are to genuinely care about the people around them underneath their obnoxiousness. Only in the third act did I start to question some of the characters' motivations, particularly how it placed a far greater focus on young Max compared to before, with other characters (especially Tom and Sarah, who had been presented as the main characters before then) falling by the sidelines. And even then, this film still packed plenty of fire in its belly, going further than even many R-rated films would in how it treats certain characters (especially the kids), and the last five minutes simply crushed it.
It's in those last five minutes where it's made perfectly clear that this isn't just a movie that uses Christmas as a backdrop for a generic horror story. No, much like how Trick 'r Treat was a celebration of the Halloween holiday above all, Krampus is an exploration of Christmas and what it really means in this day and age. All the less-savory fixtures of the modern holiday are on full display here -- the rampant commercialism, a quick scene of a cable news pundit bemoaning the so-called "War on Christmas", and the fact that nowadays, the holiday season seems to turn people into raging assholes more than anything. The family get-together we see in the first act feels like a sick parody of the holiday, especially in light of the living hell that the family is put through later on. They share presents and have a feast, but they've forgotten the meaning of it beyond shallow platitudes about "family" and "the Christmas spirit"; the fact that Max was the one in particular who invited Krampus to town is merely a formality. Omi's description of her first encounter with Krampus in the ruins of post-war Germany (told in a gorgeous animated sequence), where years of oppression and devastation had destroyed people's faith, illustrates not only what the spirit of Christmas truly is, but more importantly, how it can be lost, as we readily see throughout the film. This film has a mean streak, but it is one that is very carefully aimed, employed not in the name of bitter cynicism but, rather, for the opposite goal. It's almost like a Grimm fairy tale in a sense (before Disney got their hands on them), a parable told to warn of the dangers of forgetting the spirit of the season. The family was already tearing itself apart metaphorically even without Krampus and company coming in and doing it literally, and his arrival is presented as what these people deserved. Remember: Krampus comes to those who Santa decided to skip over because they were bad that year. (And did I mention that this movie is PG-13?)
The Bottom Line:
Despite a third-act that goes from "great" to just "good", this is still a firmly recommended Christmas movie and a great horror-comedy, one that I can undoubtedly see lasting for years to come. Hell, I already want to see it again.