Krampus begins on a fantastically sour note. Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” plays during the film’s opening credits sequence as consumers pummel one another all in the name of a good Christmas bargain. Women get punched in the face, children scream and cry, and store employees stare on in slack-jawed apathy. It’s clear from these opening moments that director Michael Dougherty has his tongue planted firmly in cheek. Krampus is a horror film, filled with horrific imagery (it’s one of the harshest PG-13 films in recent memory), but it also has a solid sense of humor, albeit a nasty one. The film balances laughs and scares for a good 80 percent of its running time, ultimately losing steam in its final act, but the ride is a fun one overall.
Young Max (Emjay Anthony) is the only person in his family who truly loves Christmas. His grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) is his closest confidant, encouraging him to write a heartfelt letter to Santa in hopes of getting everyone else in the family to share his holiday cheer. Mom (Toni Collette) is uptight and consistently stressed, dad (Adam Scott) is a vacant workaholic, and sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) cares more about her iPhone and her stoner boyfriend than anything else. Soon a slew of terrible relatives show up at the door, including mom’s doormat sister (Allison Tolman), her gun-toting husband (David Koechner), and alcoholic, volatile great aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). All hell eventually breaks loose when the family sits down to Christmas dinner. Max’s cousins pull out his sweet letter to Santa and read it aloud, embarrassing him and causing a physical altercation among the feuding children. Max retreats to his room, teary-eyed, and rips up the letter, finally throwing it into the wind outside his bedroom window. BIG MISTAKE. His denouncement of the holiday sends Santa packing, and in the big guy’s place comes Krampus, the anti-Santa Claus who punishes non-believers. An insane winter storm and massive power outage only make matters worse.
Krampus truly hits its stride mid-film, as the family is attacked by Krampus’ helpers, a group of macabre variations of beloved Christmas staples like gingerbread men, teddy bears and snowmen. The creatures wreak havoc on the family with the same monstrous glee as the baddies in Joe Dante’s Gremlins. In fact, Krampus owes a lot to Gremlins. Both films are anti-Christmas movies, injecting the holiday with zany violence, and Krampus, in the spirit of Gremlins, makes heavy use of practical effects over CGI. The actors fight with actual, physical creations, and as a result the terror seems more realistic and brutal. The film’s sense of humor remains intact throughout the family’s fights, with surviving relatives spouting funny one-liners as they blast Krampus’ henchmen straight to hell. At one point Max tries frantically to get a car to start, exclaiming to his cousin, “I don’t even know how to drive a stick! We have a hybrid!” Such wisecracks remind the audience not to take things too seriously, which is why the film, in its final moments, begins to fall apart when it does just that.
Michael Dougherty is no stranger to holiday-themed horror comedies—he also directed the superb Halloween horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat. Both that film and Krampus deliver genuine thrills while keeping things fun, no easy feat. In a cast of noteworthy funny people, Adam Scott and David Koecher are consistent, even if they’re playing versions of characters they’ve played before. The film’s lead actresses outshine the men, though. Toni Collette, Allison Tolman, and Conchata Ferrell showcase their comedic chops yet also get to be total badasses; Tolman and Ferrell, in particular, have “F*&k this!” moments that are genuinely satisfying.
Curiously, the film slows down when its very namesake gets more screen time. But while Krampus fizzles at the end, the journey to get there is so much fun that all is forgiven once the credits roll. We’ve got a new anti-Christmas classic on our hands—Gizmo and his fellow gremlins would be proud.
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writers: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Starring: Toni Collette, Allison Tolman, Adam Scott, David Koechner, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Andy Herren is an adjunct professor and occasional reality show winner. When he’s not lying to people on national television, he contributes to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter. Olive Penderghast is his soulmate.