Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Dougherty. Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields. Produced by Alex Garcia, John Jashni, Michael Dougherty, Thomas Tull. Music by Douglas Pipes. Photographed by Jules O’Loughlin. Edited by John Axelrad. Production designed by Jules Cook. Costumes designed by Bob Buck. Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Conchata Farrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler.
Krampus, the new Christmas horror film about a demonic spirit of the holiday tormenting a suburban family, will not be everyone’s cup of Yuletide cheer. But there are some moviegoers who treasure the occasional lump of coal with their holiday entertainment, and Krampus will be right up their alley. This is slick, well-made Christmas comedy-horror, with its dark heart in just about the right place. Imagine something along the lines of another Christmas classic, Gremlins, and you’re on the right track. Besides, if you think that Christmas movies should refrain from the spooky and supernatural…well, tell that to Ebeneezer Scrooge and George Bailey.
The opening of Michael Dougherty’s picture, however, grounds everything in different Christmas movie traditions. The spirit of John Hughes hangs over these early scenes. After a cheerfully cynical title sequence of violent shoppers, we move to an affluent Midwest suburb that sits with growing dysfunction. We can imagine that Griswolds living down the street from our hero family: Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), and their kids Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony). Tom is a workaholic, Sarah is overstressed. The family seems to be anxiously inching towards divorce. Beth, like many teenage girls, is a professional eye-roller who would rather be with her boyfriend for Christmas. Max is a thoughtful, bullied kid prone to fits of anger. Into this mix come the antagonistic and lower-class Aunt Linda (Allison Tollman) and Uncle Howard (David Koechner), and their brood of mean children (Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel). Plus, boorish Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Farrell) and Tom’s Austrian mother Omi (Krista Stadler), who seems to know more about Christmas than she lets on.
Max, who just wants his family to be happy again, rips up his letter to Santa one night in frustration. This turns out to be a mistake, because it summons the vengeance of Krampus, a real-life subject of endless, unsettling folklore. He is referred to as “St. Nicholas’ shadow,” and he specializes in punishment of the wicked. Those who seriously betray the Christmas spirit don’t just get a pass-by from Santa; they get a visit from Krampus. Krampus has goat hooves, a burly, towering figure and a stitched-together face. His howl is bone-chilling. His assistants include murderous gingerbread men, demonic toys, hungry clowns with three-pronged jaws and a small army of dark elves who wear pagan masks. Warning to parents: despite the PG-13 rating and festive iconography, this movie is very scary. Not PG-13 scary. Scary scary.
That said, it’s an absolutely splendid premise for a horror film, and Krampus runs with it while keeping a sly comic tone, which rises in pitch as the movie’s threats rise to delirious levels. Scott at one point has a line that recalls one of the memorable moments from John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, signaling a similarly terrifying descent into sheer absurdity. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, this kind of tonal toggling, and all I can say about Mr. Dougherty and his co-writers (Todd Casey and Zach Shields) is that they know exactly what they’re doing.
It’s also an intriguing wrinkle in that the movie humanizes everyone. Uncle Howard is smarter than he looks. Beth is a better sister than she lets on. Tom is presumed to be a milquetoast, but he keeps his own options open. Sarah and Aunt Linda both show that they can rise to the occasion. This isn’t your everyday slasher setup where everyone wears a tag indicating how much they deserve to die. This is important, because Krampus’ target is actually, exclusively, Max, who has lost his faith in Christmas and must be punished.
Mr. Dougherty also directed 2007’s Halloween-themed cult classic Trick ‘r Treat, also about a spirit doling out twisted–but consistent–justice on a holiday. Dougherty is an excellent filmmaker, able to stretch tiny bugets (15 million here) with superhuman skill, and he’s able to season his horror with real suspense and characters we care about. His movie has the cheeky, wicked sincerity of a tale from the Cypt, right down to its ambiguous ending, which will probably inspire debate, but we can all agree old Scrooge was probably happy he didn’t get that one.