December 7, 2015 by Zack
The opening sequence of the holiday comedy/horror film “Krampus” should tell you exactly where writer/director Michael Dougherty (“Trick R Treat”) is coming from and what kind of story he is going to tell with this darkly comic romp. It opens with “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby, set to scenes of impatient shoppers ravaging malls and knocking people over to get the last hot toy or gift on the shelves. The contrast is obvious but it serves its purpose: Christmas has gotten out of hand. The sequence finally lands on a boy, Max (Emjay Anthony) in a fight with another boy and both are supposed to be part of some kind of nativity scene. Max’s parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), take him home and admonish him for being in a fight. Max maintains his innocence and says the other boy was mocking him. Max still believes in Santa Claus, and is teased about it by his cousins, who have come to stay for Christmas much to the dismay of Sarah, even though the relatives include her sister Linda (Allison Tolman). Her husband Howard (David Koechner) is an unapologetic alpha male who is into hunting and sports, and his poor daughters named Stevie and Jordan seem to be tomboys by proxy rather than choice. He does have a son, Howie Jr., who looks pretty lost but Howard is proud of him, simply by being “his boy”. They bring along their little dog–and, to the even greater dismay of Sarah, her acidic Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). This whole set up starts to feel a little like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, but then, just about any family Christmas movie will look familiar. Dorothy’s attitude is instantly acerbic and she cares more about where the egg nog is than spending time with the family. In fact, most of the characters are very much about themselves. Tom and Sarah’s teenage daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is only interested in seeing her boyfriend, and the kids seem more interested in their iPad. But they’re all brought to the dinner table along with Tom’s Austrian mother Omi (Krista Sadler) who only speaks in her native tongue–somehow, Tom and Max understand her perfectly and act as translator. They never seem to engage her in her own language. It comes off as a little funny but it’s never clear if that’s intentional.
The setup is that Max is pretty much the only character who really believes in Christmas, other than Omi who dutifully and happily makes Christmas cookies for everyone. Max insists on watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and sending a letter to Santa; but his intentions are met with hostility or just outright ignored, until one of the cousins intercepts Max’s Santa letter and mocks him. Then, once she starts reading the whole way through, we see that Max may be the only character who not only believes in Christmas, but the only one who cares about everyone else in his family. He yearns for his parents to have a better relationship, to spend time with his sister like they used to, for Howard to admit he wishes his daughters were boys, and so on. The exposure of these truths silences the family–but for Max, it’s too late. He’s so embarrassed and disillusioned that he rips apart the letter, and that is where the story really takes off.
He unwittingly signals the arrival of a very nasty demon called the Krampus, which is an actual legend who was sent by St. Nicholas to punish those who are bad. Due to the scary imagery and dubious purpose of this creature, most of those who believed in the legend St. Nick left Krampus off their tale, and he slipped into obscurity. This film throws him at the forefront, along with evil elves, gingerbread men and an impossibly creepy clown-faced…thing, that seems to devour bad people.
The power goes out, a blizzard comes through, and Omi swears that the fire must be kept hot. There’s a good reason why. Once the Krampus lands, all hell breaks loose, and there are similarities to another social commentary yarn, the classic “Gremlins”–but this fable is a little different. And its ending, which you really need to stick with and think about that opening scene again to fully appreciate, ties the story together nicely. The film is not subtle; it’s certainly shaming us for our selfishness and commercialized view of Christmas. Max is the only hope, but the other characters start to come around a little bit, too, and we’re rooting for them to somehow get out of this mess. They do devise a plan to escape, but the challenges of that are intense and somewhat humorous at times, too.
Some of the creatures are certainly terrifying, and the cast is wonderfully put together. Collette is a sympathetic mom, and Max shines as the kid we just want to give a big hug to. Even Howard starts to become likable, and Aunt Dorothy gives us a few good laughs. The balance of it as a thriller and comedy is well done by Dougherty, and it finishes as good as it possibly can. It doesn’t match the superior “Gremlins”; but again, there’s a bit of a different message here.
You’d certainly better watch out. But if you happen to come across the Krampus, don’t try and reason with it. You will not like where you end up.