What is about horror films trying to crap all over the happy times in our lives? They do their utmost best to leave us with tainted memories of prom nights, vacations, and of course, the big one: Christmas. Yule tide horror films come around almost as annually as Michael Bublé Christmas albums (the only thing more horrifying). Many of them are quite bad, and anyone unconvinced with a Netflix subscription should check out 2013's Stalled, a Christmas zombie attack set entirely inside an office party toilets.... no, seriously. Yet every now and then, we get a classic offering like Gremlins or Rare Exports to put the hells jingle bells into the holiday season and this year’s offering, Krampus, packs enough dark humour and creepy imagination to earn a place among them.
As Tom (Adam Scott – Parks and Recreation, Black Mass) and his wife Sarah (Toni Collette – Little Miss Sunshine, Fright Night) are dreading the Christmas arrival of their in-laws Howard (David Koechner – Anchorman, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) and Linda (Allison Tolman – Fargo), their youngest son Max (Emjay Anthony – Chef) finally stops believing in Christmas. His disbelief invokes the spirit of Krampus, the dark shadow of St. Nicholas who comes to wreak havoc on their family.
Right from the start, Krampus brilliantly sets out its tone of dark holiday parodying humour with an awesome slower motion sequence of the worst parts of the modern commercial Christmas, all set to some classic Bing Crosby warbling. We see Black Friday shopping carnage, little kids crying their eyes out while their parents want them to smile for a Santa picture before cutting to a punch up during a school Christmas recital that introduces the main characters. It’s actually one of the best and most entertaining opening credits sequences all year! The dysfunctional theme continues on through the opening setup act as we’re pledged young Max in a Kevin McCallister/Home Alone scenario of coming to hate his extended family (a dozen strong all in) including being ridiculed and tormented for still writing a letter to Santa at the age where it’s about as cool as wearing SpongeBob pajamas to a school dance. . It ultimately succeeds because it finds the fine balance of sentimentality and cynicism towards the holidays. While some of the family time scenes (both before and after the horror switch is flipped) can drag a little, most are more enjoyable thanks to a good mix of characters. The base idea is highly relatable and combines a more well off middle class family with their red neck, hummer driving, gun-toting kin, complete with too many kids, a dog and even a highly unwanted aunt in the ever reliable form of Conchata Ferrell (Edward Scissorhands, Two and a Half Men). There’s a wide range of archetypes in the mix to draw humour from without pushing things too far. Similarly, there’s a goods underlying idea of families uniting in crisis and putting all their pettiness aside for the holidays whether willingly or not.
As for the horror aspects of Krampus, it’s not a slasher fest so hardcore “deck the halls with blood and gore” fright fans might not see their Christmas wishes fulfilled. Instead, we get more fantasy-based violence and terror with emphasis on the imagination and weirdness. On this front, Krampus utterly excels on all fronts starting with early storm front itself that turns the neighbourhood into a surreal and twisted Narnia of deep snow drifts with Tremor’s like tunnelling terrors sucking people into them. Then, there’s some wonderfully twisted (yet still funny) sequences of battling gift and decoration based minions, including giant bat like tree angels, killer teddy bears, a people swallowing alien slug/jack in box crossbreed and even a squad of evil Christmas cookies. All save the cookies are practical effects rendered to feel like the results of Freddy Kruger getting his claws into Jim Henson’s dreams. The vast creativity and almost satirical disbelief of the characters keeps it from becoming corny and instead it’s a completely entertaining riot. Then, there’s the big man/goat thing himself who looks the kind of sensational creation you’d expect to see in a Del Toro film. He’s disturbing and creepy yet still distinguishable in his Christmas themed attire.
For the most part, Krampus is a happy holidays of successes but comes a little unstuck with its ending... all three of them to be exact. Each one comes with a different pitch and sadly each one is marginally a strike rather than a hit, and Krampus can’t quite bring itself into home for indecision over being a straight horror film or yielding to a more family-based Christmas message. There are also cases where the family drama gets pushed a bit too far and though the vast cast numbers permit plenty of kill offs, some are delivered casually for full effect.
The cast do sell this deep winter’s tale superbly from their quick establishments to their mixtures of fear and bewilderment at everything Krampus throws at them. Adam Scott is a more likeable version of his Walter Mitty performance and holds things down well as the group equivalent of Lost’s Jack. Toni Collette will be the most relatable character to many as the overstressed mom single-handily making a family Christmas happen, and she draws well from her past dramatic roles to sell that. David Koechner does what he does bets in bringing the comic relief with a mixture of physical humour and ill-timed obscenities. Young Emjay Anthony follows up his great turn in Jon Favreau’s Chef with another solid and believable performance that drives the setup (he’s becoming a young name to watch out for). Conchata Ferrell also piles in the laughs as the boozy and obnoxious aunt and young Stefania LaVie Owen (The Carrie Dairies) shows she’s got one hell of a scream in her.
Krampus may not be the horror film everyone is after but it is, without a doubt, magical in its execution and boasting some serious filmmaking skill from director Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r Treat) including a wonderful animated flashback story. While not suitable for young viewers, it poses minimal risk of Christmas nightmares for teens and upwards with the spectacle being more memorable than the threat. It’s an ideally suited film for those that have come to love Gremlins as a holiday tradition and want to make that a double feature; Merry Krampus indeed!