Krampus, the new holiday horror comedy from Trick r’ Treat director Michael Dougherty, tells the German folktale about a pagan, hoofed demon who visits children (and adults) that have been bad or have denounced the spirit of Christmas in some way. Rather than St. Nick dropping off a lump of coal for you, in this nightmare fairy tale it is Krampus who visits, bringing with him a legion of demon elves and all manner of supernatural abilities to possess toys and cookies. Yes, even cookies.
Dougherty brings this ancient tale to the suburbs, to a modern family of cynics, blowhards, drunk aunts, and horrible kids. The center of this story is Max (Emjay Anthony) an earnest little boy who just wants Christmas to be fun again. His parents, Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) are nice enough, but distracted with life, and his sister Beth would rather be spending time with her boyfriend. Home for Christmas too is grandma, Omi (Krista Stadler), the wise German grandmother who knows what’s happening from the get go.
Things take a turn for the worse when relatives arrive in the form of the oppressively obnoxious Howard (David Koechner), his wife Linda (Fargo‘s Allison Tolman), and three weird and annoying kids. Not the infant though, the infant’s ok. Along for the ride as well is Aunt Dorothy, played by the great Conchata Ferrell who is right at home playing a bawdy, drunken loudmouth.
It isn’t long before cynicism takes control of this dysfunctional unit and all hell breaks loose. A blizzard overtakes the neighborhood and wipes out the power. Krampus does not kill and maim himself so much as he delegates to his rogues gallery of possessed toys, gingerbread man assassins, and steadily imposing snowmen. This is where the film stalls at first, then ramps up to wonderful and horrific levels of unbridled insanity. Too much searching and discovery feels like filler early in the second act, but an attic attack by a teddy bear, a robot, and one of the more terrifying Jack-in-the-Box’s of all time elevate things. All of this is handled with some genuinely frightening moments, sold by bemused performances from Scott, Koechner, Collette, and Tolman. The parents are never as shocked or saddened by the events as they would be in the real world, helping to soften the blow of some of the more horrific events. This is most certainly not for young kids.
Krampus is truly in the spirit of 80s horror comedies, and it’s willingness to take the nightmare visuals to the extreme are something you don’t see much more in this age of homogenized Hollywood. There is definitely a thread back to Gremlins, and Dougherty is even somewhat of a new-era Joe Dante in his ability to mix comedy and fright. All of it may feel like a diversionary holiday fright fest in the end, but perhaps it will build a cult following for years to come.