Krampus (2015, dir. Michael Dougherty)
In the last few years, the Krampus has become quite a popular internet meme. The Germanic creature pre-dates Christianity but was adopted into Christmas traditions as a shadow to Santa Claus. Where Santa brings good girls and boys presents, Krampus would bring a rod to beat the bad kiddies. The character has popped up in The Venture Brothers, Scooby-Doo and even been the focus of some holiday themed films, the best of which is Rare Exports. It was only a matter of time until Hollywood decided to give the monster an American feature, this one at the hands of Michael Dougherty, best known for Trick R Treat.
Max is a kid nearer the end of that period of childhood where a belief in Santa is socially acceptable. He’s penned a letter with his numerous Christmas wishes for his family and visiting relatives, but his twin cousins decide to snatch the letter and openly mock him at the dinner table. Max responds by shredding the letter and silently wishing horrible things upon them all while tossing the letter to the snowy winds. Overnight a dark storm rolls in, the power goes out, and the neighborhood freezes over. One by one the family members are taken out by deadly gingerbread men, malevolent toys, and other assorted holiday-themed horrors before Krampus himself shows up.
Krampus is a hell of a lot of fun. It hearkens back to 1980s dark classics, Gremlins chief among them. The killer gingerbread men have a laugh reminiscent of those title villains. There is also a lot of heart in this film, about family and the holidays, but never overly sentimental. People die and get wounded. There is some blood but not an overabundance of gore. I would never say the film was scary, but it was exciting, and the design of the monsters was excellent. There is a jack in the box that is one of the best holiday horrors I’ve ever seen.
The adult cast is composed of some solid actors with strong resumes: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman, and David Koechner. They play the parents perfectly, digging their heels in at the start focused only on rational explanation and finally cracking with the chaos breaches the walls of their home and cannot be ignored any longer. Tolman especially plays a character with a lot of underlying complexity. She and Koechner work as almost a counterpoint to Cousin Eddie and Catherine from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In that film the conservative, rural ideology of the characters is played for some incredibly strong laughs. Here we see the characters are not simpletons but working from a different paradigm. One of that works well and other times results in impulsive failure. Tolman has a number of scenes where her character proves her mettle and shows up her husband, who spends more of the film talking up his macho superiority than fulfilling those words.
Dougherty’s work in film has been a mixed bag. He was a co-writer on multiple Bryan Singer projects and some studio films. Trick R Treat was a breakthrough and Krampus is an awesome follow-up. He was ten years old when Gremlins was released so the perfect age to remember the feelings evoked by that film and others of its kind. Dougherty manages to do what Abrams accomplished so beautifully with The Force Awakens, the evocation of the sense of nostalgia without pandering. Krampus feels like the sort of film that would be in the cineplex alongside The Goonies and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But it also tells a fleshed out story that completes the arc of Max’s character and ends just the way a good horror film should.