The Sixth Day of Christmas: Krampus
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
When I was planning this “12 Days of Christmas” feature, I arranged the films into pairs: a traditional Christmas film, and a comparable opposite that might be seen as its anti-Christmas reply. As such, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) was paired with Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff) as both movies are examples of the low-brow comedy that has swept the Christmas genre in recent decades, with Christmas Vacation being typically wholesome, while Bad Santa was supposedly as spiky as the very worst kind of Christmas tree. Meanwhile, Klaus (Sergio Pablos, 2019) and Krampus (Michael Dougherty, 2015) are similarly-named attempts to liven up the tired family Christmas movie format, the former by leaning even more earnestly into the Christmas spirit, and the latter by pushing against it. What started out as two pairs, however, has become a fascinating quadrilogy of films, each of which reimagine the legend of Santa Claus in distinct ways. In Christmas Vacation, Father Christmas is represented by a man providing for his family; in Bad Santa, he is a crook in a cheap costume; in Klaus he is a mysterious, reclusive woodsman with goodwill in his heart; and in Krampus, he is a repulsive vision of evil. Though they sport similar beards, Klaus is kind and cuddly, whereas Krampus is withered and horrifying; polar opposites in terms of imaginings of the traditional American Santa Claus. It is a testiment to the wonders of cinema that four such different films can provide us with such contrasting interpretations of the same character, and one who is so rooted in popular culture that you would have thought he was outside the parameters of originality.
On to giving Krampus its proper due, then, because this is a very solid movie. From its very first moments we know this will be a different kind of Christmas offering: the opening credits are set to the ultra-traditional Bing Crosby version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, juxtaposed with the backdrop of a veritable slow-motion war for Christmas gifts inside a shopping mall. The set-up that follows is disturbingly similar to Christmas Vacation, in that we are introduced to an American family at Christmastime, and they are soon joined by their obnoxious, redneck relatives. Of course, while Christmas Vacation uses this beginning to lead to (awful) familial antics, Krampus takes the path less trodden at this time of year: making the predicaments of its central family terrifying, rather than just terrible. In Krampus, for very vague reasons, the Engles family, led by father Tom (Adam Scott) and mother Sarah (Toni Collette), come to realise that they won’t be getting their usual visit from Santa this year, and instead they will have to deal with an anti-Santa and his army of evil elves and destructive anthropomorphic toys.[i] It is these toys which gave me the greatest delights, there is something both creepy and jubilantly camp about watching angry gingerbread men, or a very hungry jack-in-the-box, or, for some reason, the worms from Tremors (Ron Underwood, 1990) burrowing under the snow. Perhaps these toy monsters are too silly to give proper scares, but I think it works in Krampus’s favour that it only rarely hits us with jump scares, and focuses more on thrilling us than horrifying us.
That is not to say that Krampus isn’t chilling, however, and there is a layer of uncertainty hanging over proceedings that makes us doubt the safety of the film’s resolution. Perhaps the lack of clarity of the reasons behind the arrival of Krampus is a strength rather than a weakness. Perhaps he is not simply a mechanism to warn and punish naughty children, or those who have lost the Christmas spirit, but simply a malevolent spirit who can strike anyone at Christmas. Such a reading transforms Krampus’s ending from the traditional one of family unity and Christmas magic, into something far more subversive: perhaps the true horrors are yet to come; perhaps Christmas is a time of danger rather than one of safety. Moreover, as the final shot pulls back and back and back from the family and into the realm of the monster, we see that he is watching all of us through his snow globes, and that none of us are safe from his clawed hand, a very anti-Christmas sentiment indeed.
At time of writing, Krampus is available to watch on Netflix.
[i] I have two things to say about this sentence: first, as the surname Engles indicates, the family have German roots, because, of course, in Hollywood, all threats must be foreign. Second, after her recent turns in this film, Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018), and Velvet Buzzsaw (Dan Gilroy, 2019), Collette really is becoming the face of horror, and she certainly does pull that facial expression very well.