Krampus is the kind of fantasy film I loved when I was a kid. Like Gremlins and The Witches, it is the sort of wicked and wondrous ride that my parents would let me watch without realizing how incredibly creepy and gross it is. Krampus emulates those movies and many others from the late '80s that straddle the line between Spielbergian warmth and spine-chilling horror.
The film starts off as a holiday comedy in the vein of Christmas Vacation and Home Alone. The characters are akin to John Hughes archetypes. Like Clark Griswold, Tom (Adam Scott) is an embittered everyman struggling to put on a happy face in the midst of family chaos. Toni Collette plays his wife Sarah — an obsessive, uptight mother much like the one Catherine O'Hara portrays in Home Alone. David Koechner is the rude and crude Uncle Howard, who pulls up to their house on Christmas Eve in a Hummer loaded with hunting gear. Their son Max (Emjay Anthony) is the face of innocence, clinging desperately to the hope that the spirit of Christmas will rid his family of anger and resentment.
Like any good family comedy, this one crackles with tension. Scott and Collette effectively illustrate how parents can quietly explode during the holidays. You can feel the weight on their backs as they struggle to get along with their loud-mouthed relatives. This film makes a stronger case for why people should put up with their annoying families than many other holiday films. Best of all, it does so without turning into soft, sentimental mush. The family's eventual closeness is subtle and sincere.
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Unfortunately, it takes a demonic spirit to bring them all together. The family gets a visit from Krampus — "the shadow of St. Nicholas." As explained by Tom's German mother (Krista Stadler), Krampus is a figure of European folklore that she encountered as a child after losing her Christmas spirit. This backstory is told through rich, earthy animation reminiscent of an old claymation Christmas special. It's warmly familiar, fun and truly a feast for the eyes.
The film takes you even further down memory lane when Krampus and his little helpers invade the family's home. You haven't seen creatures like this since the days of Stan Winston and Rick Baker. They spring to life with a crude, handmade quality that makes them all the more terrifying. You can practically feel their fur tickling your nose.
Krampus recalls the magic of Poltergeist, making monsters out of mundane objects, embedding the otherworldly in the everyday. In addition to the horned, hulking manbeast Krampus, this monsterfest includes a razor-toothed teddy bear, a sinister snow angel and a giant jack-in-the-box. They'll all make you squirm in your seat.
Local director Joshua Hull was in the audience when I saw the film, and he lit up like a Christmas tree. Hull is the man behind the indie horror comedies Beverly Lane and Chopping Block. Krampus seemed to confirm his love of that genre, filling his head with all kinds of creepy and comedic ideas. As the film unfolded before his wide, gleaming eyes, I could see Hull falling in love with horror all over again. While they make many viewers uncomfortable, the best horror movies make filmmakers feel like they're right at home. As Hull once told me, "These are some of the most cathartic and imaginative films you'll ever see."
Like he did with his Halloween-themed horror anthology Trick 'r Treat, co-writer/director Michael Dougherty infuses the film with a rich sense of mythology. By the end of the movie, you get the sense that there are many stories left to be told in the world of Krampus. Although it's based on folklore and evocative of other films in the fantasy genre, it feels ferociously original. Fortunately, Krampus isn't a nostalgia-inducing cash-grab. This film may be a new classic.