Hand to God, last Christmas season, I said to my kids, “I can’t believe nobody’s made a movie about the Krampus”. This actually isn’t true: There have been many films about the Krampus, including a Danish one made in the last decade that’s been on Shudder recently, whose name I forget, and a Finnish one called “Rare Exports”. But, you know, here in the real world, America, home of the Silent Night, Bloody Night franchise (!) and Christmas Evil, nobody had made a movie about Krampus.
What’s the Krampus? Well, you know how, in America, if you’re a bad child, you get coal in your stocking from St. Nick? That was not sufficiently punishing for our Germanic and Austrian brethren, who thought Christmas would be enhanced by an actual demon that came around and punished children on a one-on-one basis.
Der Krampus, in other words.
The Boy and I almost had to go see this, especially given a ca. 60% RT, which is typically a good sign for a horror movie.
The premise is this: Young Max (about 10, I think) still believes in Santa Claus and is encouraged by his Austrian grandmother to write a letter to him. Meanwhile his alienated parents and too-hip sister go through holiday motions without any real cheer. They are descended upon by mom’s sister and her brood, a grotesquerie of rural caricatures, that set up a pretty fine metaphor for red-state/blue-state antagonism, all under one holiday roof. Anyway, Max’s letter is exposed, and in a fit of pique, he tears it up and casts it to the wind, where it spirals upward like an ad for a particularly ominous nanny.
Then the fun begins, ten little Indian style, as our Christmas movie takes on Night of the Living Dead proportions with the newly united family defending itself from demonic toys, CGI gingerbread men of a most offensive sort, creepy elves and of course the eponymous Krampus.
This could go wrong in so many ways. So, so many ways. And there are so few ways that it could’ve gone right, most of which would result in a much lesser movie than we ended up with.
The biggest surprise, and the thing that had us walking out of the theater smiling about, was that while being set up as a kind of malignant black comedy, it’s actually surprisingly benign. The upper-middle-class Engels and their lower-class in-laws rather quickly resolve their superficial differences and come together to form a united front.
Honestly, when the rednecks came in, they were so awful, we were kind of looking forward to them getting killed. But the dysfunction on the other side really wasn’t much better. It was quieter. It was surrounded by nicer stuff. But it was still there. So it was practically shocking to be rooting for the humans. (The movie even opens with a horrid massive shopping brawl, setting us up for something more misanthropic.)
So, what else was so great about this?
- It wasn’t gory. I’ve got nothing against gore, of course, and it would’ve been appropriate for the misanthropic film we were expecting. Tonally, though, the suffering was kept to a minimum, which kept things fun and scary, rather than grim and nauseating.
- There’s a heavy reliance on practical effects, like puppets and props. The gingerbread men—which you really couldn’t do any other way—were probably the weakest part because they were CGI, but mostly it was masks and props and so on.
- The expository flashback was done stop-motion animation style, like Coraline or Corpse Bride. Again, a great and unexpected tonal choice.
- Actual character arcs! For lots of characters! In a horror movie!
- They didn’t screw up the ending. I thought they had written themselves into a hole by the end, and then there’s a fake-out, and then another fake-out. It was shocking how well this worked, again, tonally and narratively, they didn’t give up on the horror part, but there’s a non-nihilistic feel to it that’s almost optimistic.
Technically, of course, it’s competent. You’d expect that. But it’s very highly so: Adam Scott and Toni Collette are the stressed out Engel mom and dad, and presumably the big names, but the supporting cast is great character actors: David Koechner, Allison Tolman as the in-law parents, with the great Conchata Ferrell as obnoxious Aunt Dorothy. Emjay Anthony as Max and Krista Stadler as Omi (grandma) had some nice chemistry that gives the movie its warmth—which is kind of an odd thing to get in a horror movie but there it is.
Composer Douglas Pipes puts an evil spin on “Carol of the Bells” and “Silent Night” for his score.
The Boy really, really loved this film. We’re so used to seeing: bad horror movies, tonally bad movies (not just horror, but kid flicks, too), and movies with bad endings, it was so refreshing to see a movie that threaded a difficult path so expertly.
A very pleasant surprise, and while I will doubtless be shouted down for this, it earns a place alongside of Die Hard and Gremlins in the canon of holiday flicks.