The anarchic spirit of Gremlins is alive and well in Krampus, director Michael Dougherty’s wonderfully nasty tale of festive cheer gone very, very wrong. Satirical, funny and frightening, Krampus cuts through the glut of saccharine perpetuated by so many other Christmas movies. Ironically as a result it actually presents a far more potent Christmas message, essentially in the form of a very dark cautionary fairy tale.
The film opens with a superbly telling slow motion sequence of Christmas shoppers assaulting one another over purchases whilst “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” plays on the soundtrack. Scenes such as these have become all too familiar in recent years, and immediately the viewer begins to feel a sense of just why Krampus, the evil shadow of Saint Nicholas, might visit these people over Christmas, instead of Saint Nick himself.
That is exactly what young Max (the excellent Emjay Anthony) inflicts on his family, albeit unintentionally, when his truly ghastly relatives come to visit over Christmas. Humiliated into having the Christmas spirit driven from him, Max tears up his letter to Santa Claus and throws it out of the window, inadvertently summoning Krampus and his horrifying minions (including demon snowmen, some very nasty elves, cannibal clowns and nail gun wielding gingerbread men). Cut off by a horrific snowstorm with no electricity or heating, Max and his family are forced to defend their home as Krampus and his nasties start to pick them off one by one.
The film ends up being a well above average B-movie horror pic for several reasons. First the cast, which also includes Adam Scott and Toni Colette, all contribute winning performances. Visual effects are generally old school prosthetics and people in costume or masks, with minimal CGI. Dougherty balances the scares and laughs fairly well, and his direction is assured and atmospheric. The film echoes Gremlins in several key ways (including Krista Stadler’s wise old German grandmother, akin to the Keye Luke character in Gremlins) as well as other offbeat movies like Rare Exports.
Krampus shares a similar subtext to Gremlins – for example the idea of materialism, greed and selfishness crushing the true spirit of Christmas. In addition, the film has an implied Judeo-Christian undercurrent not only in its be-careful-what-you-wish-for narrative, but also references to Christmas being about sacrifice. In that sense, despite superficial trappings of pagan mythology, beneath the surface is a very good message that Christian viewers should cheer, as I have already indicated. Mind you, I doubt they will. This is a horror film after all.
All things considered, Krampus may not quite scale the impossible heights of Gremlins, but it does provide a pleasingly sharp alternative to sugary and unconvincing Christmas movies.