Ah, Christmas. A time for celebrating the joy of the season with family and friends. A time for children making their wish lists for Santa. A time of shoppers trampling over each other for $3 DVDs at WalMart. Yep, that’s what Christmas seems to be nowadays – a crushing of human bodies and spirits in the mad dash to bring home a good deal on a toaster or a Keurig.
Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE CHRISTMAS! But I’m not naïve enough to believe that it hasn’t been tainted by the impact of retail stores and the need for folks to go ballistic to bring home the perfect gift for their loved ones. So, for me, Krampus fits right in with the modern-day holiday rush and will sit nicely on your shelf with films like Gremlins, The Ref, and Black Christmas. It’s a non-traditional Christmas film like those and one that I truly had a blast watching.
The story is simple – poor Max (beautifully portrayed by young Emjay Anthony) has lost the Christmas spirit. And, looking at his awful visiting family, who can blame him? Max is a fourth grader who still believes in Santa and still writes his letter to the big guy every year. Max also has loving parents who don’t have the time to be together as often as they’d like (Adam Scott and Toni Collette), a teenage sister who is distant and more plugged into her smartphone than her family (Stefania LaVie Owen), and a sweet, caring and secretly awesome grandmother (Krista Stadler). But, unfortunately for all of them, Max also has his Uncle Howard (a scene-stealing David Koechner) and his awful family of in-laws, including a kindly but ineffective wife (Allison Tolman), two daughters that he’s tried to make into sons, and the crabby, shrewd, and hyper-critical Aunt Dorothy (WV native Conchata Ferrell hamming it up to great delight).
As they gather for a family dinner, Uncle Howard’s daughters steal Max’s letter to Santa and read it aloud to the entire family, much to his embarrassment. But Max’s letter is filled with genuine sweet wishes for his family – he wants his parents to love each other again, wants his Uncle Howard to find financial relief and wants his cousins to be able to act like real girls.
His feelings hurt by his own family, Max decides to shred his letter to Santa and denounce Christmas, throwing the scraps of his wish list to the wind.
But something magical happens as the scraps are taken into the sky. However, unlike your traditional feel-good holiday film, it’s not Santa who comes to restore the Christmas spirit for the family. No…it’s his dark shadow – the Krampus.
Here the film turns into a creepy, fun time as the family finds themselves without power in the midst of a massive blizzard – all thanks to the Krampus. They are attacked by his minions of Christmas evil, including deranged takes on simple, sweet Christmas symbols like an angel, a Jack-in-the-Box, elves, teddy bears, and the greatest on-screen Gingerbread men since Shrek!
I will say no more of the story at this point. But I can say that the production value of the film is great. Dougherty shoots the film with bright colors and dark shadows when appropriate. There is also a great mixture of practical and digital effects that really keep the illusion of the film’s world very believable. But none of that matters without a great cast and everyone in this film does exactly what they are supposed to do. Max is the heart and soul of the film and I found myself in his corner from the beginning. His parents are played well and the frustration they show in dealing with the in-laws is very believable – for many of us, probably almost TOO believable, as we all have those family members that we feel relieved to have to deal with only once a year. The grandmother is played with great warmth but you can tell she may know more than she lets on with regards to the Krampus when he begins his attack on the family.
The film has a look and feel like several classics including Home Alone and the aforementioned Gremlins – which is, honestly, the best film to which I can compare Krampus. The movie feels like those great 1980s Amblin films, or like a great episode of Tales from the Crypt or Amazing Stories.
If you’re expecting a straight horror film, you won’t get that with Krampus. That’s not the kind of film Dougherty set out to make. If you want something that is jolly and cheerful – again, that’s not what Krampus was designed to be. Much like Gremlins, Krampus has a mean spirit but its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek. It wants to creep you out but also make you laugh. And, like Gremlins, people die and the film doesn’t wrap up in a nice, neat bow at the end. After all, we’re talking about the Krampus here!
What the film does – and where it succeeds – is it creates a new “non-traditional” holiday film while still holding true to the feel of a Christmas film. It will be in rotation along with Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Gremlins in my house for sure next December.
Simply put – I was smiling from the opening credits to the end credits and, while the film does have a few pacing problems, found Krampus to be a fun way to spend a cold December night.
It also made me reconsider telling my son that there is no Santa Claus.