The Christmas horror movie is a strange creature. Sure, terror knows no holiday spirit, and a psychopath with an axe can go on a rampage on Christmas Day just as easily as they can on the 15th April. However more different and special is a film that is both a horror and has a genuine element of the Christmas season to it. Obviously in our younger days we all watched Gremlins and The Nightmare Before Christmas, but now the offerings have been less than great. Director Michael Dougherty is no stranger to holiday based horror, giving us the wicked and fun anthology film Trick r Treat that I greatly enjoyed. Now he’s focussing his macabre lens on the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year in Krampus.
Young Max is losing his faith in the Christmas spirit. His parents love him but are always busy and his sister is more concerned with texting her boyfriend. To make things even worse his hideous relatives are coming round for the holidays. After a disastrous family dinner Max rips up his letter to Santa and throws it out the window. Doing so summons a dark entity: Krampus, the shadow of St Nicholas who, instead of bringing Christmas joy, takes the souls of those who have lost their Christmas cheer. As the family attempt to survive, it is discovered that Max’s grandmother knows something about the creature and its minions that are hunting them.
There are horror films that absolutely terrify you and stay with you late into the night, but others are more like thrill rides, and Krampus is of the latter. It might not scare you, but it has a fun energy that’s hard to dislike. The family are drawn in fairly broad strokes, but that just serves to get us into a comfortable place before the mayhem begins. And what mayhem it is. Very real fears of danger and death, including that of children, are next to absurd moments of fighting demonic toys. This all gives the film a very sinister playfulness. The design of all the creatures, from evil jack in the boxes to Krampus himself, is really creative and done practically, with the only clear CGI being some shots of Krampus jumping from roof to roof and, of course, the homicidal gingerbread men. You can tell a lot of effort went into the film.
The cast are also having a great time. Adam Scott in particular I want to nominate for some kind of “Best Horror Movie Dads/Husbands” poll. He’s hilarious when reacting to a killer robot with deadpan exasperation and genuinely sweet when he’s stepping up to protect his loved ones or sharing a moment with an equally good Toni Collette as his wife. I love it when actors can do both horror and comedy well, and everyone here is on form.
The soundtrack is also absolutely perfect, all sinister spins on traditional holiday notations from Douglas Pipes. I always thought that Carol of the Bells sounded creepy anyway, but now it has its own special Krampus version that takes the creep factor to 11.
As stated previously I greatly enjoy Michael Dougherty’s film Trick r Treat. That is a film that has a real vibe and enthusiasm for that holiday, and that same quality is here in Krampus. You get a sense that this is a film that understands the holiday season, both the good and the bad. The opening credits are a montage of ravenous shoppers causing a tidal wave of destruction, complete with tazers and a punch up. And who amongst us hasn’t had those moments of repeating the mantra of “it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas” when faced with those difficult family or social situations that we can’t get out of? There’s also the sweeter moments; baking with grandma, writing the letter to Santa, that we all remember as kids and that maybe, like Max, we wish we could cling to a little bit. There’s even a nice and moody stop motion animation sequence that to my mind is a very deliberate reference to the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials.
It also has one of the most key components in any Christmas film: the message. From A Christmas Carol to Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas films always have a message, usually about charity and love and being a better person, and Krampus is no exception. I won’t go into too many details, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are moments where you see the characters learning to appreciate their family members, even if they don’t always get along. Also with Max there’s a very real theme of childhood belief, growing up and learning that your mistakes have consequences. It’s never really hammered over your head though, and it doesn’t sacrifice the horror aspect in getting the message across as it still remains quite delightfully nasty right through. I genuinely think it’s something that makes Krampus a Christmas horror movie, rather than simply a horror movie set at Christmas.
Frightful festive fun, Krampus is a film that I see having some real seasonal staying power. I can easily see myself putting this on after I’ve wrapped all the presents, and settling down on the sofa with a warm apple juice to enjoy the chaos.