The quotation that popped into my head during the opening sequence of Krampus, in which a stampede of shoppers inflicts maximum carnage on a Black Friday retail store, is a famous one from Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play No Exit: “Hell is other people.” The chaos in this sequence is poetically choreographed, with every crying toddler and grunting security guard playing their part in the ballet of the damned. “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” sings an oblivious Bing Crosby as two children brawl inside a nativity scene. And just like that, the film has already presented its central equation: Christmas is Hell.
One of those brawling children is a boy named Max (Emjay Anthony). He just wants Christmas to be like it used to be, as if a 10-year-old can remember back to the halcyon days when the holidays weren’t defined by familial angst and rampant commercialism. Max knows he’s a little too old to believe in Santa Claus, but he can’t help himself. He’s encouraged by his German grandmother (Krista Stadler), who urges him to mail a letter he’s addressed to Santa before it’s too late. If that sounded kind of ominous, you have the right idea.
It’s too bad that everyone else in Max’s life seems bent on reminding him why Christmas is terrible. His parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) don’t really have time for each other anymore, his sister’s (Stefania LaVie Owen) only meaningful relationship is with her iPhone, and his uncle (David Koechner, playing David Koechner) is a gun-crazed conservative who has raised an entire clan in his red-blooded likeness. Max’s Hell is other people, and the worst of them have all converged to make his Christmas a living nightmare.
For its first half-hour or so, Krampus is the kind of hip, cynical holiday comedy we’ve come to expect every December. Like 2003’s Bad Santa and this year’s The Night Before, it rejects Capraesque sentimentality in favor of a more misanthropic (and, really, a more relatable) worldview.
This is all well and fine, but then the film transforms into something we haven’t quite seen before. When Max tears up his letter and throws the pieces out the window in a fit of angst, an ominous blizzard descends upon his family’s house. The mythical Krampus has received his message loud and clear, and he has come with his host of carnivorous jack-in-the-boxes, demonic gingerbread men, and hairy elves to exact vengeance upon those who would dare befoul the Christmas spirit.
Krampus may be a relatively novel concept in American culture, but he’s been a staple of Germanic Alpine folklore for centuries. The horned, hooved Christmas demon is essentially the antithesis of Saint Nicholas, brutally punishing children instead of lavishing them with gifts. Given that Krampus was originally intended to scare the wits out of poorly behaved children, he makes for a pretty solid horror-movie monster. He plays that role to perfection in Krampus, toying with his victims like a demented serial killer before finally twisting the knife (or the razor-sharp fingernail, as it were).
Though Krampus may be singularly terrifying, there’s also something perversely funny about him — at least to those of us who weren’t raised in the Austrian countryside. In our minds, Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and good cheer, so there’s a cognitive dissonance when we pair it with the most evil thing conceivable. Krampus director and co-writer Michael Dougherty has smartly recognized that this dissonance lends itself to black humor, and he’s created a strange film that plays its scares for laughs and vice versa. For the most part, and against all odds, it works.
The film’s team of creature designers deserve immense credit for this, as their monsters seem to encapsulate everything that could possibly be frightening while still retaining a streak of whimsy. The man-eating jack-in-the-box is a perfect example; part-anaconda, part-Predator, and part-clown, he is the bastard stepchild of all your worst nightmares. As with Krampus himself, he’s so outrageously evil that you can’t help but laugh, even as you squirm in your seat.
The weird beauty of Krampus, however, is that it’s not just a parade of evil (if you want to see that, I recommend attending a Krampuslauf). Nor is it a moral fable, admonishing viewers to remember the spirit of Christmas or else. No, Krampus is a much more slippery thing. It kills off its characters seemingly at random, not bothering to let the dickheads bite it first. The film and its titular monster share the same nihilistic worldview: it doesn’t matter who dies first, because doom will eventually come for us all.
I should probably end on that line, but I’ll quickly add this: It was a small stroke of genius to couch a Krampus-based horror movie within a broader critique of consumerism and the disintegration of the American family. Without giving away too much of the film’s ending — which gloriously riffs on the aforementioned Sartre quotation — it becomes apparent that Krampus and his demonic horde are not the true monsters in this story.
Good on Dougherty for seeing his cynical vision all the way through to the end, and for refusing to take the heartwarming way out. Krampus may be the feel-bad movie of the holiday season, but its horrors come gift-wrapped in a surprisingly attractive package. It might even give you something to talk about when you’re gathered around the table with your loved ones. And, boy, you’ll need it, because that’s when the real horror starts.