There are classic Christmas movies, such as Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, and then there are classic anti-Christmas movies, such as National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Bad Santa, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. These are not anti-Christmas insofar as they are actively trying to undermine the holiday or give it a bad name, but they instead delight in satirizing the otherwise wholesome and cheery atmosphere of jingling bells, adorable elves, and twinkly-eyed Santas. Most of these films, you’ll note, are comedies content to laugh with–and at–Christmas conventions.
There are, however, a handful of Christmas-themed horror films including Silent Night Deadly Night, Jack Frost, Black Xmas, and the 2010 Dutch film Sint, depicting Santa as a bloodthirsty bishop who kidnaps and murders children whenever December 5 falls on a full moon.
The new film Krampus is a curious outlier even among this lot: a Christmas horror-comedy about a boy who accidentally summons Krampus, a hulking, horned, cloven-hoofed demon who terrorizes his family–along with his visiting redneck relatives whose gun-loving ways are initially mocked but later prove useful.
The film begins with a slow-motion scene of an avalanche of vicious and avaricious shoppers scrambling through retailer doors as they open, happy to stomp, kill, and throttle anyone between them and deeply discounted merchandise. Soon, however, the action turns to a boy and his long-suffering family whose otherwise peaceful and normal Christmas is invaded by boorish relatives. He makes an angry wish that he comes to regret after Krampus arrives with a blizzard and starts dispatching victims.
Some parts of Krampus are hard to watch–literally. That’s because the director Michael Dougherty fills the screen with extended sequences of bright flashing lights (sometimes caused by lightning but more often for no particular reason). This not only makes the action hard to follow but irritating as your eyes constantly try to adjust–and people with photosensitive epilepsy should beware. Dougherty uses flashing lights the way JJ Abrams uses lens flare in his films: excessively and distractingly. In a September 2013 interview Abrams apologized to his audiences for this cinematic quirk, and if Dougherty has any integrity he will follow suit.
Nonetheless, Krampus is well done overall, with a fine cast, good special effects, and more than a hint of camp. There’s much silliness, for example as Gingerbread Men, a giant clown-faced Jack-in-the-Box, and holiday toys come alive to attack the family. The film has elements of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as well as lesser-known B-horror films such as Full Moon’s Puppetmaster series.
The Krampus, by the way, is not merely the product of a screenwriter’s fevered and twisted imagination; it is a European folkloric entity. In her book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, folklorist Carol Rose notes that “Krampus had a malevolent character and was described as looking like a demon with a long red tongue and wild eyes. Although reputedly a Christmas ‘helper,’ he spent the winter nights searching for naughty children so he could punish them.” Another source, The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, adds “Throughout the Austrian Tyrol, into Bavaria and parts of Italy, the Krampus is a fertility demon, with a long tail and fur, who carries a birch branch and a big black bag. He acts as a foil to St. Nicholas, for as the saint gives gifts at Christmas, so the Krampus punishes those who have been bad. Really bad children may even get carried off in his black sack.”
Aside from the curious fertility aspect, in this light the Krampus is essentially a typical legendary boogeyman figure (akin in some ways to La Llorona), invoked by parents to warn their children not to misbehave. The Christmas angle fits perfectly; for many kids the promise of a new video game or the latest Star Wars action figure may not be enough to elicit good behavior, though the threat of being abducted and brutally murdered by a weird demon might do the trick.
Krampus, in its own sort of twisted way, is about the importance of family, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Those who prefer their Christmas memories and experiences unsullied by irreverence should avoid Krampus; others will find much to like in this dark horror/comedy.