Michael Dougherty’s Krampus explores the darker side of Christmas as an ancient demon comes to terrorise a family for being naughty.
Christmas is well known as a time of year where people are encouraged to be kind to one another and show affection that they might not otherwise show but it’s undeniable that there’s a dark side to the time of year. Many people find themselves alone and the whole rush to get everything that ungrateful kids want so that they will be appeased.
The opening minutes of the film show this really negative consumer driven side of Christmas with a collection of scenes not unlike depictions of Black Friday. People fight with each other, thoughtlessly grapple for gifts and generally treat each other the opposite of what could be considered civilised. It sets the tone for what we’re about to get nicely and I must admit provokes a few laughs as -for someone who once worked in retail- it hits a little too close to the truth to be anything but tragically funny.
From here we’re introduced to Max (Emjay Anthony) and his family which consists of his father Tom (Adam Scott), mother Sarah (Toni Collette), sister Beth (Stefanie LaVie Owen) and grandmother -known as Omi- (Krista Stadler). They are a well-to-do family where the Dad works too much, the mother resents that and the sister resents having to spend time with her family instead of her boyfriend. Collectively they are dreading the arrival of cousins who are less than their kind of civilised but they spend time with them out of familial obligation rather than actually wanting to. We’ve all been there haven’t we?
The film does everything it can to make the cousins as repulsive as possible by making them embody just about every Redneck cliché in the book. They arrive in a Hummer, talk in the saltiest language that a PG-13 can get away with and generally seem pretty unrefined.
I really liked the “guess who’s coming to dinner” style of their arrival as it produced some really entertaining dialogue between the two families. The standouts from the cousins are Howard (David Koechner) and Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) who are given many of the best lines in the film.
It doesn’t take long for things to turn ugly when Max gets ribbed by his tomboyish cousins for still believing in Santa which causes him to turn his back on good will and accidentally summon the demon Krampus to sort things out. From here the film becomes an entertaining romp as the characters are persistently tormented by a procession of creepy Christmas themed creatures.
The creature design is really impressive with some really creepy perversions of standard Christmas imagery as well as some Evil Dead reminiscent demonic gingerbread men complete with unsettling high pitched laugh. It’s a lot of fun to watch the family try to fight off the various waves of all these horrors.
Krampus himself is rarely featured which is a shame but it makes his appearances feel more powerful when they do happen. It is well established that he is the dark side of Santa Claus complete with helpers so it makes sense for him to hang back given the setup.
The actors all do a good job with pretty thin characterisation. I wasn’t expecting the deepest of characters but I’m glad that most of them were likable in some way. Adam Scott’s Tom always seems like a reasonable guy and clearly cares about his family despite not liking those he has to put up with because of his wife. David Koechner is a pretty likable jerk who has many redemptive moments that elevate his character. Max is a pretty bland kid but his naivety comes across well. The rest of the characters come and go but fill out the cast list nicely. I wasn’t especially invested in their survival but enjoyed seeing them interact enough.
For me this film ventures more into the comedy territory than the horror territory but I imagine there will be plenty here to scare younger people at this time of year. The PG-13 rating indicates that it’s not really supposed to terrify me but I can see some moments that might scare younger viewers. It reminded me of Gremlins in the sense that the horror aspect was very tongue in cheek.
The film is really well paced. It isn’t especially long and doesn’t spend too much time hanging around making characters or the viewer dwell on what has happened or what is about to happen. The ending is a little bit dragged out but everything before that point moves along really well.
Visually the film is pretty memorable with the aforementioned twisted Christmas imagery and the bleak snow storm creating the appropriate sense of isolation. There’s even a surprising and brilliant stop motion sequence explaining what Krampus is somewhere in the middle. There’s a lot to recommend about this one.