It’s the merriest time of year, and also the most stressful time of year, when you live your days in a near-constant state of anxiety wondering whether your gifts will show up on your doorstep on time, and if they do whether they’ll stay on your doorstep or be snagged by thieving assholes. It’s the time of year when your brain argues with your heart over whether or not your spouse will like the present you bought for them, because it’s the thought that counts, but is it really? It’s the time of year when families get together to celebrate the season, which is a festive way of saying that people jam themselves in houses for hours at a time with too much food and drink, the social equivalent of a powder keg except not as clean.
Thanks Claus for Christmas horror, and most of all for Krampus, the Christmas horror flick to end all Christmas horror flicks: If you have need of a horror film to reflect the myriad forms of tension you feel during the holidays, look no further than Michael Dougherty’s 2015 black comic satire of America’s increasingly commercialized approach to the season, served with a side of partisan divide. Christmas horror isn’t a new thing—Dougherty isn’t reinventing the wheel here—but most Christmas horror films either hang Christmas in the background or opt for amusingly perverse but openly lazy synopses, a la “a slasher movie, but the killer is dressed as Santa Claus.” (In a few cases, the killer actually is Santa Claus, because why not.)
Krampus actually makes a meaningful, undisguised go at reckoning with Christmastime customs and ancillary seasonal bullshit, notably, per its opening credits, the desperate, frenzied dash to procure last-minute gifts appended with discounts too tempting to pass up. The movie begins as a veritable flood of berserk holiday shoppers bum rush the doors of a nondescript big box store: bodies shove against, trip over and stomp upon one another, employees topple off of precariously balanced ladders, boxes fall to the floor like snowflakes on asphalt, security guards eager for violence drag unruly patrons by their coat collars or savage them with tasers, stuffed animals are torn asunder in brutal contests of tug-of-war, and children bawl on Santa’s lap as their parents try to persuade them to smile with a nearly sadistic level of obliviousness.
It’s a bad scene. I mean, it’s a great scene, but boy, it’s bad. Dougherty exaggerates the truth, of course, but beat after beat the sequence still feels too real (especially once we get to the cash registers, where zombified checkout clerks slide credit cards and palm wads of cash handed over by customers whose faces contort into pained disbelief at the cost of their purchases). This, however, isn’t what Krampus is really about. Krampus just uses its foreword for context. America has a thin, greedy grasp on what Christmas is for, so as the film’s plot unfolds and young Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) tosses his Christmas joy to the wind (literally, as he tosses the shredded remains of his letter to Santa out the window and into the cold winter night), we can hardly blame him. Christmas sucks.
But it sucks more when you’re forced into proximity with people you’re supposed to love and who are supposed to love you back; we’ll call those people “family.” By the time Max finally gives up on the holiday, we’ve already done so ourselves, but that doesn’t take the sting out of his loss of faith. Christmas should be a day and a half of idle festivity, where we trade gifts with those we call kin and while away the hours by sharing a tasty meal and maybe playing a few hands of Oh Hell or perhaps Screw Your Neighbor (which is much less lascivious than its name implies). Watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. Wear an ugly sweater. Rock out in your gingerbread man socks. It’s Christmas. Do it up.
Krampus doesn’t give a crap about how you specifically keep your holiday, though being as the hulking goat-demon-man of the title has a clear fondness for killing people with the most popularly commodified symbols of the season, it’s not unreasonable to assume he’d rather you avoid making Christmas all about the loot. (There’s a meta-reading here about our fixation on the acquisition of stuff, and how the baubles and trinkets and gadgets we collect and hoard are actually bad for our well-being.) The film only cares that you keep its spirit. Bickering with your in-laws, scrapping with your cousins, neglecting your parents … these are the crimes Krampus is interested in. In 2017, you might imagine that Krampus is busier than ever, vaulting from house to house, visiting hellish torment on folks caterwauling about border walls and immigration reform, gun rights and gun reform, tax cuts for corporations and tax burdens for the rest, all sides and white nationalism, and, of course, the war on Christmas.
Dougherty gets it. Not to discount the many functional, well-balanced families who can spend Christmas with each other without devolving into ideological tribes, but Dougherty is focused on the Americans who can’t possibly get together and avoid confrontations, whether of class or culture or philosophy, despite their family ties. Krampus is more stuffed with Christmas icons made monstrous than your stocking is stuffed with chocolate and gift cards; the film’s chief delight, as with Dougherty’s Halloween omnibus masterpiece, Trick ’r Treat, is the tactile quality of its creatures and sets and props, but for all of that its most terrifying moments occur at the dinner table.
Sarah Engel (Toni Collette) just wants everyone to enjoy her cooking and their company on Christmas Eve, but her brother-in-law, Howard (David Koechner) repeatedly emasculates her husband, Tom (Adam Scott), Howard’s kids needle Max, and her sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), and her aunt, Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), both can’t help commenting on her fancy-pants cooking. (And this is all before Max freaks out on his cousins for reading his letter to Santa out loud to the table after pinching it from him.) We’re looking at a room full of people related to each other by blood and through marriage, and no one can spare a kind word for each other, save Tom, who tries gamely to take Howard’s macho douchebaggery in stride while complimenting Sarah’s food.
It’s an awful, ugly, all too relatable scene, but as you sally forth into Christmas this year, take heart in their turmoil: As screwed up as you think your family is, and as much as Christmas loosens the cork on your collective fermented crazy, you’re not alone. Maybe that’s the season’s most important lesson of all.
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.