For the past several Octobers, I’ve made a tradition out of carving pumpkins while watching Trick ‘r Treat. It’s my choice for the greatest Halloween movie of all time, bar none. The whole movie positively revels in love for the holiday. The visuals are drenched in Halloween imagery, and the anthology structure depicts all the many ways in which people of all ages celebrate the holiday. The whole movie revolves around the rules and legends of the holiday in a way that makes Halloween more scary, more exciting, and more magical.
Though Trick ‘r Treat was lamentably mishandled by Warner Bros., the movie developed enough of a cult following to put a sequel in development. But first, Trick writer/director Michael Dougherty set out to make another movie: Krampus, named for the anti-Santa of older legends who’s been consistently overlooked in our modern celebrations of Christmas. Though in these cynical times, it seems that Krampus has slowly been making a comeback of late.
So here we’ve got a monster out to torment those who malign the Christmas spirit, and it’s being brought to us by the guy who tormented those who maligned the Halloween spirit. Oh yeah, I was pumped to see this one. I was thrilled with the notion of a horror movie that honored Christmas the same way that Trick honored Halloween. Though in hindsight, that was kind of a stupid expectation, given that Christmas is a much more cheerful and happy time of year that doesn’t lend itself to the macabre like Halloween does.
On the other hand, it’s not like scary and twisted imagery can’t make for a satisfying holiday film (see: The Nightmare Before Christmas). Moreover, the whole point of Krampus is to spread the Christmas spirit by way of finding people who represent the opposite of the Christmas spirit and (quite literally) dragging them through hell. That’s a time-honored formula for beloved Christmas stories, from “A Christmas Carol” to Bad Santa.
Sure enough, the movie starts out by aggressively setting the right tone, as we witness holiday shoppers trampling each other in the shopping aisles to the tune of a jolly old Christmas standard. There’s even a fight breaking out between kids in a Nativity play! As we follow our family of main characters home, the film proceeds to comment on the news pundits’ “War on Christmas”, careers that demand some degree of work even over the holidays, bullies telling younger kids that Santa doesn’t exist or that he died in some horrific accident, and so on.
Pretty much immediately, the film comments on all the crap we put ourselves through just so we can pretend to be happy over the holidays, and all the heartless fuckwits who have to ruin the good time for everyone else. Which brings us to the visiting extended family, all of whom are ignorant, loud-mouthed, aggressive, brain-dead, outrageously rude, and just plain unpleasant to be around. And this is where the film starts to go downhill.
We’ve got a sympathetic protagonist, as Max (Emjay Anthony) is just a young boy trying desperately to hold onto some shred of Christmas magic. There’s also his grandmother (Omi, played by Krista Stadler), who also proves to be as wise and loving as any grandma could ever hope to be. Aside from those two, I wanted every single character dead before the fifteen-minute mark.
…Well, okay, I suppose I should throw in Max’s sister (Beth, played by Stefania LaVie Owen). She seemed perfectly nice, especially by the usual standards of high school girls in horror films. In fact, the movie might have been better served if she was written and played as more of a teen girl stereotype. It would have been a much better fit with the rest of the cast, nearly every last one of whom is some kind of a cartoonish stereotype.
I know this is a common thing with horror movies, but it really gets on my nerves when the victim pool is loaded with stupid and unlikeable dipshits who are practically begging to be killed off. I don’t care if we know that they’re going to die, that doesn’t make them any easier to watch as we wait for the kill that we all know is going to happen. But then this movie goes a step further and throws in a couple of kills so insultingly stupid that they could only have worked if the victims were themselves too dumb to live.
That said, at least the worst cases in point seem to be having fun chewing the scenery. Conchata Ferrell and David Koechner are both especially fun to hate, though it helps that both of them are seasoned character actors who’ve built outrageously successful careers on similar roles. Lolo Owen and Queenie Samuel both make similarly easy punching bags as two of the cousins, and Maverick Flack shows a unique gift for getting laughs with nothing but a blank-eyed stare.
As for the characters played by Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and Allison Tolman, I honestly couldn’t have cared whether they lived or died. They were serviceable characters, nothing more.
Luckily, even if we know that the characters will inevitably die screaming — and even if we’re anxiously waiting for the movie to just get on with it so we don’t have to spend another second with these asshats — we can still get some solid thrills and scares when the kills finally start coming. Though the visuals are sometimes incoherent and the sound mixing gets wonky on occasion, the scares are still wonderfully creative and beautifully paced. The filmmakers utilize Christmas imagery in delightfully twisted ways, and the effects look fantastic from start to finish.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly translate into anything that spreads any kind of Christmas cheer.
For comparison’s sake, let’s go back to Trick ‘r Treat. A huge part of what made that movie work is that we were given a very specific set of four rules. More than that, they were rules that we’ve come to associate with the holiday because we’ve all heard them from the time we were kids. So when we see someone breaking the rules (like someone who doesn’t give out candy to trick-or-treaters, for example), we know instantly that they’ve done something wrong, they don’t respect the holiday, and they deserve the appropriate consequences.
For another comparison, consider the TV show “Grimm” — specifically episode 308, which was a Christmas episode all about Krampus. Played by horror icon Derek Mears, no less. In that story, Krampus unerringly appeared to beat and kidnap delinquent kids just after they had committed some type of crime. Which means we know that there are rules, and there are consequences for breaking them.
But in this movie, Krampus’ motivations are much more vague. We’ve got so many different kinds of assholes in this film, and Krampus goes after every one of them. He goes after the kids and the adults. He goes after the dumb mute kid, the kind sweethearted grandma, and even the innocent baby. Even after it seems like the characters have learned their lesson and they genuinely want to set things right, Krampus keeps on going after them anyway.
This is a significant problem because it precludes any kind of central message. We get a few vague mentions about hope, compassion, sacrifice, and so forth, but nothing solid or specific enough to qualify as a coherent theme and certainly nothing that the characters ever get the chance to demonstrate. Without a better idea of what Krampus wants, what these characters did to incur his wrath, what the characters might have done differently to avoid incurring his wrath, or what might be done to drive him back, we’re only left with Krampus and his army of misfit toys killing everyone off. The result is a movie that punishes those who don’t adhere to the Christmas spirit, but without defining or celebrating precisely what the Christmas spirit is.
To be clear, a lot of that might have been easily fixed if the ending was tweaked, but I’m not getting that deeply into spoilers here.
(Side note: Be sure to stay through the credits and listen to the Christmas carols that have been reworked with lyrics about Krampus. Neat stuff.)
Krampus is a deeply flawed movie, almost fatally so, but at least it’s still kinda fun. It vents frustrations about the stressful holiday season in a cathartic way that makes for some decent comedy. It’s also a sufficiently scary movie that expertly twists yuletide music and imagery into something horrifying, and the scares look great for what was assuredly a low budget. I just wish the film used those scares and grievances to make a stronger case in favor of more holiday cheer.
I very much doubt that this movie will be a new Christmas classic, even among those who loved Trick ‘r Treat. Then again, compared to previous attempts at Christmas-themed horror (Silent Night Deadly Night, Black Christmas, Jack Frost , Santa’s Slay, etc.), this is certainly one of the least trashy efforts if nothing else.
I’d recommend playing it safe and waiting for a second-run or a DVD release.