Leave it to the Austrians to counter warm and fuzzy Christmas traditions with one of the most depraved characters in all of lore: Krampus. The part goat, part demon functions like a Bizarro Santa, who, in his kindest incarnation, punishes naughty children. Michael Dougherty, meanwhile, decided to go a whole lot darker with his eponymous movie.
Krampus is billed as a horror-comedy, which isn’t inaccurate but also can be misread as a parody, which it decidedly is not. Dougherty’s movie might feature plenty of Christmas Vacation styled laughs – and more about that in a bit – but the darker sides of the film are as demented as they come.
We follow the normal, yet dysfunctional Engel family – Engel being German for
angel – who are hosting Christmas for their close relatives. The ornery aunt and the deadbeat brother-in-law with his bratty children. The type, when mixed together, becomes the recipe for a bad holiday.
Infighting and bullying soon get to the youngest Engel, Max, who, in a moment of anger, tears apart his letter to Santa Claus and throws it out the window. When the family wakes up the next day, a blizzard has engulfed the now strangely abandoned neighborhood.
No points for guessing who is behind this transformation.
The most notable part of Krampus, at least on the surface, is the cast’s caliber. Adam Scott and Toni Collette star, with a supporting cast which includes David Koechner (in place of Christmas Vacation’s Randy Quaid), Allison Tolman (you know her from the first season of Fargo), and Conchata Ferrell (who you call up when you want an angry, redhead aunt in your movie). The rest of the cast, while not as well known, keeps up well with the stars, and Krampus is, despite a somewhat hokey premise, decidedly an A-movie.
Dougherty, who both wrote and directed the film, could easily have fallen into the trap of taking it in a wink-of-the-eye, break-the-fourth-wall direction, but wisely kept it well-rounded. The funny parts are funny, the creepy parts are creepy, and while there is some crossover, it never feels forced.
One thing in particular that makes the eerie parts work is that you rarely see Krampus himself. Instead, the family is forced to barricade itself inside the Engel house while trying to keep the Bizarro Santa and his helpers out. There’s a tenseness to it, and when the daughter of the household disappears, the rest are forced to put their differences aside while dealing with the situation.
Further, what makes that storyline even more bizarre, is that a good chunk of the movie comes off as an homage to Christmas Vacation. I touched upon the characters above, but the dynamics, dialogue, and even the flow of the story follow the Chevy Chase classic closely. Krampus is darker, for sure, but that lends itself well to the core of Christmas Vacation’s charms.
Having a Christmas horror movie the whole family can enjoy might sound like an impossibility, but Krampus seems to be one nigh everyone can enjoy. The laughs and scares are well balanced, and the entertaining script is paired with some great visuals. The contrast between an ice-cold blue blizzard and a house warmed by an open fireplace is quite striking.
It’s a seasonal watch in the One Star Classics Household, as it should be in any self-respecting home. Pair it with Christmas Vacation, and you got a good evening going.
Krampen Nacht is celebrated in many countries tonight. We are all about timely reviews around these parts!