Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus is a cautionary tale which tries to leave a mark. This writer/director wants audiences to leave with an understanding of what the holiday is about and most viewers will get it. In what may not get recognized by everyone is this film’s historical and cultural identity.
This movie started playing at theatres the night before December 6th to coincide with the established Germanic folklore of when this supernatural beast appears to reward or torment children. On the morning of the next day, kids go to look at the shoe or boot they left outdoors contains a present (to reward good behaviour) or a rod (for bad). In this old country — which includes Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic — celebrations take place to remind people of all ages to play nice year-round. Variations of this legend includes this entity leaving the good alone whilst Saint Nicholas would place sweets in the footwear.
Instead of following the lore, Dougherty’s version goes down a different direction and it feels more generalized. The film looks at a typical American nuclear family with first world problems. Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah Engel (Toni Collette) are stressing out over relatives they think are rednecks, and sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is lost in social media, more concerned about her boyfriend than her family. Very little is known about Tom’s ancestry until Grandma (Krista Stadler) starts speaking. In the opening act, all we know is that she loves baking gingerbread cookies and building gingerbread houses (a Germanic tradition). As the narrative continues down a bumpy road, inspirations from Gremlins (a slang term used by RAF pilots to explain malfunctioning gear), Poltergeist [this word means noisy ghost in German] and Evil Dead (playing on the fears of colonial American culture ala H.P. Lovecraft) makes this film feel more like a blending of different traditions.
That also includes the influence of Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol in this narrative. In the opening act, this movie playing on television is blatantly placed to let viewers know about this film’s intended direction and that diminishes the impact of this film. Instead of having ghosts visit young Max (Emjay Anthony), a goat-like hunched figure comes knocking instead. The Engels — uncles, aunts and cousins included — puts the antics of The Simpsons to shame and Max really has to be careful in what he wants to wish for. There are forces of nature watching. After a tiff at the dinner table with his cousins teasing him about still believing in Santa Claus and in what he wants for Christmas, his anger sets the rest of the film in motion.
As grandma points out, what remains of this family’s community spirit and sense of hope is lost in the madness this holiday could unleash at the last-minute. That includes the opening montage where shoppers go rabid when big box stores have their Black Friday sales (an American phenomenon that’s trickled to other countries). There’s a clear love between Max and his grandmother that’s tender, but everyone else is lost in their own world.
Grandma is the highlight of this movie, and she blames herself for everything that’s going on. Her actions are unusual because she does not reveal why Krampus is after this family until it’s too late. The story within a story makes more of an impact because of its historical significance. Her encounter with the Krampus took place after World War II when she lost hope herself. Poverty was a problem and she found herself incapable of enjoying the holiday (ironic when considering she’s first seen taking a delight in baking holiday treats). When she admits to have wished pain upon her folks and the township because they were out for themselves instead of massing together to survive, she’s been living most of her life in fear of when the creature will return. The lapse in logical continuity is forgiven when considering the stop-motion animation used to tell this tale is beautiful. If this subplot can be expanded upon, perhaps a prequel might emerge to rival Pan’s Labyrinth. The German Expressionistic art direction in this animated part of the film is gorgeous.
Another sequence that is wonderfully well-done is when the Krampus is seen leaping rooftop to rooftop, much like Spring-heeled Jack, from English folklore. Both entities exist to scare children into behaving.
Dougherty impresses by showing certain types of horror continuously exists, and people must work hard to overcome their vices in the face of danger. As for whether or not Krampus is an agent of evil or the antithesis of Santa Claus, that’s a debate for students of folklore to argue over. Historically, he works with St. Nicholas instead of alone. This film presents this being as a force of nature who takes no sides. He fulfills wishes much like a djinn from Arab lore. When a spirit catches sight of mortals who can’t see the beauty of community, they can come down on this realm to punish. Until the Engel family sees the error of their ways, they will be watching.
3 Stars out of 5