At first glance, “Christmas” and “horror story” don’t seem to go together all that well. Christmas season is usually warm, sweet, and comfortable, and who the heck wants all that nice stuff interrupted by demons, monsters, and ghosts?
And yet, some of the most beloved Christmas tales, such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Joe Dante’s Gremlins, have discovered how to combine the sweetness of the Christmas season with the creepiness of a campfire story — and the result is a seasonal favorite that people happily rediscover every December. So clearly there’s some precedent here. Christmas and Horror have collaborated plenty of times — from the infamous Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) to the recent anthology A Christmas Horror Story (2015) — and it’s not like this is an American phenomenon either. (Check out Rare Exports (2010) and/or Saint Nick (2010) for some recent yuletide horrors from outside the U.S.)
It should come as no surprise to learn that Krampus, the latest entry in the “Christmas horror flick” sub-genre comes from Michael Dougherty. It didn’t take long for his 2007 Halloween anthology Trick ‘r Treat to become an October staple among horror fanatics, so it only makes sense that the filmmaker would take another shot at the “holiday horrors” thing. Based only on these two films, we’d like to recommend that Mr. Dougherty set his next sights on the Easter Bunny — because clearly he has a talent for this type of movie.
“Krampus,” as most horror fans can tell you, is probably best described as the “anti-Santa.” According to old-school Germanic folklore, Krampus sort of feeds off all the bad vibes that are tossed into the ether by the Scrooges and Grinches of the world — and he doesn’t travel alone. Not only is Krampus a huge, horrific, horned figure in his own right, but he also has a disturbing assortment of evil allies on his side: ravenous gingerbread men, evil elves, and the nastiest jack-in-the-box you’ll ever see. So when a perpetually bickering extended family gathers together for another Christmas full of stress, tension, and pettiness, it’s time for holiday hell to break loose.
The plot could be described as “Christmas Vacation meets Trick ‘r Treat, with a dash of Rod Serling irony and the twisted morality of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Tom (Adam Scott) and Sara (Toni Collette) are a typical suburban couple with a lovely house and two sweet kids — and their Christmas is about to be steamrolled by all sorts of obnoxious and overbearing relatives. (David Koechner steals a few scenes as an obnoxious uncle, and kudos to the reliable comedian for not copying the same ol’ “Uncle Eddie” shtick.) Young Max (Emjay Anthony) has had enough. He shreds his “Dear Santa” in a moment of anger, and flings it into the wind. And this is the kind of invitation that Krampus cannot resist. It doesn’t take long before the monstrous demon and his creepy menagerie show up to feed on the family’s seasonal cynicism.
Therein lies the cleverest of the film’s hooks: it’s a broad, dark comedy and a full-bore horror flick at the same time, but there’s also a weird sense of sincerity at play here. Whereas some of the Christmas-oriented horror flicks are pretty Grinch-like in their own right, Krampus actually has a good heart. There’s some satirical edge to its sense of humor and a bit of nastiness in the scarier scenes, but it’s pretty clear that Mr. Dougherty and his collaborators are going for a mid-’80s/Robert Zemeckis/Joe Dante/Tales from the Crypt type of presentation, and speaking as someone who loves all of that stuff, I think they did a damn good job of it.
Beautifully shot, impressively cast, dryly amusing, backed by a wonderfully playful score, and bolstered by some dazzling monster FX, Krampus may never replace Gremlins as your year-end, family-friendly, Christmas-themed horror movie — but it’s safe to say it’ll probably earn a spot in your December rotation.
4 out of 5 evil gingerbread burritos
Editor’s note: Nerdist Industries is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.