I miss horror movies that were aimed at a younger audience. Someone will point to something like Goosebumps or Monster House as proof that these sort of films still get made, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about movies like The Gate or Poltergeist; these kinds of flicks were well-made enough that the adults in the audience could get more than a kick out of them, but they were genuinely trying to give the young’uns some nightmare fuel. They weren’t pulling punches or trying to play things safe. We just don’t live in a culture that supports scaring the crap out of kids when it comes to their movies.
Thank God (or more appropriately, Satan) then for Krampus. Director Michael Dougherty’s second holiday horror outing is a worthy successor to his delightful Trick ‘r Treat, and in a lot of ways works better at playing to its intended audience. Die-hard horror junkies will probably bemoan the PG-13 rating Krampus is touting, but it’s clear that this was never meant to be a movie for that crowd. This is a rare horror movie for kids that’s not holding back or treating its audience with any gentleness. Krampus is as wicked as its titular character and makes no apologies for itself.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty for the grown-ups to glom onto. The solid ensemble cast play their parts with total conviction, allowing for humor and horror in equal measure. The script (co-written by Dougherty, Todd Casey, and Zach Shields) gives us a good amount of time with this dysfunctional family before the insanity hits, and it gives the whole movie a weight that’s lacking in a lot of horror outings.
And let me tell you, that insanity I mentioned is an understatement. Krampus goes nuts by the film’s climax. I think a lot of people will actually be turned off by how steadily paced the film is (everyone in my screening seemed to find the movie boring), but I found it a huge refreshment to most modern horror fare. There isn’t a bunch of false scares or empty tension in the film; everything is consciously escalating to an unavoidable and surprisingly twisted ending filled with stylized monsters and a playfully mean message.
I have to dork-gush about the monsters for a minute, because for any fan of ’80s horror, Krampus is a treasure trove. There’s obviously a Gremlins homage at play here, but what’s insanely surprising is that the inspiration doesn’t stop there. There’s a sly nod to Tremors with one of the beasties, but the best stuff comes from the presents Krampus leaves on the doorstep of our doomed family. It is a Full Moon fan’s dream come true. All of the baddies from Demonic Toys get stellar upgrades (a horrifying jack-in-the-box clown, a gnarly looking teddy bear, a killer robot, and a ghastly angel that stands in for Baby Oopsie-Daisy) and the maniacal gingerbread men in Krampus put The Gingerdead Man to shame. I don’t know how much of this was intentional, but all of it was an absolute blast for me.
Pathetic horror nerd stuff aside, Krampus is also a fantastic looking movie. Dougherty has a clean and simple directorial style that keeps things from ever feeling chaotic. The first time we see Krampus in this film is a perfect shot on a rooftop (you’ve seen it in the trailer), but then we see him leaping across roofs in pursuit of a child and it is awesome. The sound design sells the might of this beast so well and it makes his presence twice as intimidating. It doesn’t hurt that the creature design is so bizarrely nightmarish and almost theatrical. Some of the monsters in this look like they were sketched up by some Frankenstein creature made from parts of Julie Taymor, Tim Burton (the good version), and Hieronymous Bosch.
Dougherty also understands the importance of these kinds of stories as… well, stories. In Trick ‘r Treat, the movie’s tone and anthology format was setup beautifully through its comic book opening credits. In this film, when the time comes for the story of Krampus to be told, the entire tale is done in a faux stop motion sequence that gets across the Grimm’s fairy tale vibe the movie is going for. Where Trick ‘r Treat was a funnybook bit of gallows humor, Krampus is a dusty ol’ tome that wouldn’t look out of place next to an ornate and ancient Bible.
And like a lot of ancient tales, Krampus has a moral to its story. It’s one we’ve seen played out over countless cheeseball Christmas movies: the true spirit of Christmas is about family and giving and yadda yada. What makes Krampus so great is that it’s the Tales from the Crypt version of that tired moral. The opening credits are a sardonic bit of genius, showing a horde of violent shoppers tearing each other to pieces as Johnny Mathis’ “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” plays over the carnage. This sets up the entire film’s purpose: we’ve lost what Christmas is supposed to be about, and it’s time we were punished for it.
Krampus is an unbridled joy. It probably sounds weird to say this, but Krampus made me feel like a kid again. I can see myself finding this movie on TV late at night and being spooked by it so much that I would flip back and forth between the channels in order to alleviate my anxiety. I know most people reserve their inner child for Disney flicks or whatever intellectual property they loved as a wee one getting a big screen adaptation, but my inner child came out in full swing for Krampus. Take the kids to this one and show them that being scared can be a whole bunch of fun.