Good ol’ St. Nick might leave a lump of coal for naughty children, but that’s nothing next to Krampus, who will toss the bad tykes into his sack and carry them away to the fiery pits of Hades.
Krampus is something of an anti-Santa Claus in traditional Austro-Bavarian folklore, a pagan figure that became paired with the Christian St. Nicholas for Christmastime celebrations in the 17th century.
Here in the Czech Republic, we have something similar: a Devil (Čert) who travels the streets on December 5th along with St. Nicholas (Mikuláš) and an Angel. The Angel rewards or praises the good children, while the Devil punishes the bad; parents might warn their children against being naughty, lest the Devil take them away.
Inexplicably, the Krampus lore has caught on in the US in recent years, leading to the release of a slew of Krampus-themed movies over the past few years. The not-awful Christmas Horror Story features a standout sequence that pits Santa Claus against his evil version.
Director Michael Dougherty’s Krampus opens with a terrific slo-mo montage of the degradation of the Christmas spirit: credit cards swiping, last-minutes shoppers angrily vying for goods, and a Christmas pageant that ends in fisticuffs.
The pageant fight is caused by pre-teen Max (Emjay Anthony), coming to terms with growing older and losing faith in Santa Claus. He also pines for Christmases as they used to be, when his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) were happy and he spent more time with older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen).
The first act of Krampus seem to follow in the footsteps of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as Max’s upper-middle class family unit welcomes the annual visit from their rural counterparts, David Koechner’s patriarch filling in for Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, with Fargo’s Allison Tolman as his wife. Cranky Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) has unexpectedly tagged along for the trip.
Eventually, Max has had enough of the holiday. But don’t lose faith in the Christmas spirit, grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) warns him, lest something evil comes this way.
Something evil does come, and while the first act of Krampus is fitfully entertaining as a light comedy with some dramatic underpinnings, the rest of it is a full-fledged holiday horror movie in the tradition of Gremlins.
There’s genuine appeal in the tone and direction Krampus takes: it’s crafted for a younger audience but never panders to them, and the impressionable may be genuinely terrified by some of the monsters that grace the screen.
Apart from the CGI gingerbread men, I loved the practical effects employed for the look of the monsters: there’s a fanged teddy bear, a horde of creepy masked “elves” and best of all, a giant jack-in-the-box that gobbles down children through an Alien-like mouth.
And the giant, hooved Krampus himself, an imposing figure who (like the elves) hides his true identity beneath a human mask. Kudos to the character and set designers, who fill the screen with memorable imagery throughout the film; director Dougherty brought some similar creations to his previous feature, the Halloween anthology Trick ‘r Treat.
One quibble: in the world of something like Gremlins, we’re presented with rules that govern the existence of the monsters: how they live and reproduce and (most importantly) how they’re killed. There’s nothing like that in Krampus, so we’re never fully aware of what the characters are going up against or how they can defeat it, and suspense suffers as a result.
Krampus threatens to end on a whimper, but it abruptly turns things around. The film leaves much of the Krampus legend unexplained; climactic events might make more sense to viewers familiar with the classic folklore.
Stick around through the closing credits for Christmas family photos from the cast & crew.