It’s that time of year again, when twinkle-lights line the houses, pine trees enter the symbolic mainstream, and families feel the insurmountable pressure to come together. For many, it’s the “most wonderful” time of the year. For many others, it’s the most dreadful. Most of all, I’d say Christmas is a time of great dichotomy. In late December, a great chasm appears. On one side, high spirits and holiday cheer. On the other, familial tensions and grotesque consumerism.
Our holiday movies, too, are not impervious to this phenomenon. Films like Silent Night, Bloody Night, and Black Christmas paved the way for a darker, more cynical yuletide outlet. The combination of light, innocent décor, and ordinary folks butchered by terrifying monsters feel sort of risky or taboo. It’s a kind of sacrilegious blend of elements.
Over the decades, Christmas horror has become a popular sub-genre. It’s a way to validate those less delightful feelings the season can conjure up.
I’ve been lucky with my Christmases. I mostly enjoy the season. My family gets along, but there’s still gossip. There are still passive-aggressive asides and nearly imperceptible judgments being cast around the dinner table. Christmas horror draws upon and accentuates these simmering tensions that lay beneath the surface—often transforming awkwardness, pain, and dread into serial killers and demons.
Few of these films marry the pleasure of the holiday aesthetic with monster blood better than Michael Dougherty’s 2015 dark comedy/monster mash Krampus. The film opens with a slow-motion montage ala 2009’s Zombieland. However, instead of the flesh-eating undead, Dougherty shows us hordes of rabid shoppers, pushing and fighting over various toys and gifts. Here are images of department store employees looking weathered and forlorn set to Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It’s a remarkably funny sequence that sets up Dougherty’s certain brand of holiday cynicism that permeates throughout the rest of the film’s runtime.
From there, the movie transitions into a sharply written dysfunctional family comedy. It’s a loving homage to Christmas Vacation that both honors the National Lampoon film and adds a few timely political jabs for good measure.
The first act plays things incredibly straight. If you didn’t know what kind of film this was before pressing play, you would never guess it was anything but a raunchy holiday comedy. It’s not until about twenty minutes in that the vibe changes completely. Young Max, our last surviving Santa-believer, is bullied into shredding his North Pole letter and flinging the remnants out into the cold air.
Dougherty then seamlessly transitions the film from suburban caricatures to an unrelenting fantasy horror romp. It’s as if Dante met Gremlins. A blizzard rages outside. Classic Christmas iconography becomes nightmare fuel. Even something as benign as a snowman is used as a mysterious ticking clock and source of growing tension. The small portraits inside the advent calendar doors take on new disturbing life. Each ring of Christmas hell is scarier and more violent than the last.
And of course, sleighbells and hooves no longer signal the arrival of jolly Saint Nick. It’s Krampus who has come to town, summoned by those disillusioned with the spirit of Christmas. And Krampus’ collection of toys all bare teeth and an insatiable lust for blood.
Many critics have praised Krampus for its innovative creature and sound design (except for maybe the evil CGI gingerbread cookies) and for good measure. Krampus’ menacing, horned silhouette and booming howl still evoke chills upon repeat viewings. The way the beast charges across rooftops in pursuit of ill-equipped victims is a genuinely freaky visual. On closer inspection, you can see the past Krampus’ drooping face that it’s really no face at all. It’s a mask hiding something far more sinister beneath the fleshy façade.
Perhaps what’s most admirable here is that Christmas is not merely a backdrop, as seen in many holiday horror offerings, but directly responsible for the action on screen. It is a damn Christmas movie through and through.
The cast is nearly pitch-perfect. With Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, and the rest of the crew popping off one-liners and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-mes with exceptional comedic timing. They’re pulpy performances, yet still grounded and believable.
In all, and I’m surely preaching to the choir, Krampus is a film worthy of including in your seasonal film rotation. It’s scary, funny, and full of heart.
Sure, it’s also disturbing and a little mean, but isn’t that kind of fitting, too?
Recommended Cocktail: Something warm. A cup of coffee with a shot of Irish cream? Mulled wine? Spiked hot cider? Or maybe a classic Hot Toddy—boiling water, 2 ounces of bourbon, 1 teaspoon of Demerara sugar (or ¾ ounce of light honey), and then garnish with a lemon peel and cinnamon stick.
Alex Tronson is a writer living in New Orleans. His work has been published in Barstow & Grand, Misery Tourism, Expat Press and Hobart.