Traditionally, horror movies are morality tales writ large for the big screen (and to create some sort of impact on the generally teen audiences that frequent the genre). A classic horror trope has summer camp counselors, virile teens or 20-somethings, who generally die based on whether they are good or not. Act badly, be a mean person, fail to be kind to small animals and children, and you’ll get your karmic comeuppance on screen, generally in a grisly and often apt manner.
And so Krampus fits neatly into the genre, revolving around a bullied young boy Max (Emjay Anthony), whose family is rife with tensions and for whom Christmas becomes an instant nightmare when his Mom’s sister and family show up for the holidays, along with gruff, perpetually upset Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). Max’s family consists of his hormone-driven and smartphone-obsessed teen sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), his mom Sarah (Toni Collette) and dad Tom (Adam Scott). They’re a pleasant enough family with very modern issues, including Tom’s devotion to his work at the cost of time with the family.
The relatives are much more exaggerated, more out of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation than anything else, with Howard (David Koechner) as the stereotypical redneck, talking about guns and coaching his girls on proper wrestling techniques. He’s married to Linda (Allison Tolman) and they have two bruiser tomboy girls Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel) and a mean, withdrawn boy Howie Jr. (Maverick Flack). And a baby who they forget in the car when they first arrive at Max’s house.
It’s chaos. It’s painful, laughably awful chaos when the families get together, offering up some comic relief for the horror that’s slow to build in the first act of the movie. Max, it seems, still believes in Santa Claus and even writes a letter to Santa asking for love, harmony and peace in his extended family. But when he’s humiliated for his beliefs, he tears up the letter and swears off Christmas altogether. Which triggers the arrival of the Krampus, an actual Germanic mythic character that punishes children who don’t have the Christmas spirit.
The only person who knows what’s going on is the mysterious grandma Omi (Krista Stadler), who mostly speaks in German, with her comments translated for the family by Max. She recognizes the evil afoot, and at one point relates her own history with the Krampus in a quite visually engaging animated flashback.
This time, however, the Krampus has brought a sled full of playmates, and when a freak blizzard blankets the neighborhood in a few feet of snow and drops power, the family’s trapped and must deal with the evil themselves. Fortunately Howard never travels without firepower, so when the Jack in the Box turns evil, when elves smash through the front window, when the old Christmas tree angel turns out to be quite un-angelic, even when the Krampus itself entices Howie Jr. to eat a very angry gingerbread man, it’s mano-a-mano. Except guns might not be a particularly effective weapon against evil beasts…
It’s hard to create a completely new and unique horror movie by the very nature of the genre, but director Michael Dougherty has a lot of fun with the Christmas Vacation meets Friday the 13th mashup, and the ironic use of tree angels and carols, the beasts themselves, all add to the entertainment value of this not particularly horrifying horror movie. It’s also very character-heavy, which is curious because every character in the film is an archetype, from the “modern teen girl only interested in her own needs” to the “wife of the redneck who apologizes and eventually has to show some backbone” to the grudging respect that the two fathers Tom and Howard express towards each other.
Still, I found Krampus entertaining and liked the Christmas spin on the horror tropes. They’ve been done before, but if you’ve got a six pack and a couple of buddies coming over for a movie night or just need a complete escape, you might just be surprised at how well assembled and acted Krampus proves to be. Oh, and don’t lose that Christmas spirit. It could have evil consequences.