Directed by Michael Dougherty
Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, and Zachary Shields
Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Krista Stadler, and Emjay Anthony
THIS REVIEW GIVES AWAY THE ENDING OF THE FILM
Families can be a pain, especially when everyone gets together solely from a sense of obligation. What should be a time of joyful reunion becomes an endurance test, as everybody picks at each other’s emotional scabs. Good times. The consolation is that every now and then it can be the basis for a really good satire like the Christmas horror film Krampus. You’ve seen the heartwarming dysfunctional-family Christmas comedies. Everyone hates each other and yells, but at the end the “True Spirit of Christmas” prevails and harmony is restored. Even the most bitter or transgressive holiday film follows this pattern. Krampus does as well, but in a way that undermines the genre’s theme of hope and reconciliation.
By now anyone into horror or fringe culture has likely heard about Krampus, the anti-Santa. Versions of the Bavarian baddie started popping up in American media a few years ago, perhaps because the resurgence of Krampus festivals in the Alpine regions of Europe brought the figure more press. In case you’re new to phenomenon, Krampus is a goat-like demon that punishes bad children. A likely holdover from pagan times, he’s survived through association with Christmas and Saint Nicholas. In some regions Krampus works for the jolly old elf, which makes the chains he wears suggestive of working conditions at the North Pole. Fortunately the needs of the story define Krampus for the movie, so the punishment isn’t limited to bad children.
The main character is a young boy named Max (Emjay Anthony). Max lives with his parents, sister, and paternal grandmother, who is from The Old Country. Visiting for the Christmas holiday are his maternal aunt along with her husband, four children, and dog. Just in case everyone isn’t miserable enough, Max’s aunt has also brought along her (and Max’s mom’s) aunt, who complains about everyone and everything. You’d need a scorecard to keep track of everybody, but the important connection to remember is Max and his grandma Omi (Krista Stadler). We never learn her actual name; Omi seems to be a variant of the informal German word for ‘grandmother’, ‘oma’. Max and Omi share a close bond that includes a strong desire to properly celebrate Christmas. They’re about to share something more sinister — the responsibility for initiating a tragedy.
After a disastrous dinner — at which Max’s cousins read his letter to Santa out loud, and his mom’s fancy meal was ridiculed — Max declares that he hates all of them and Christmas. He tears up the letter and tosses it dramatically out his window. This is the final component; Krampus is summoned to remind everyone that they’d better watch out. The rest of the film is Krampus and his minions picking off the family (and neighbors) one by one until only Max is left. The events so far mirror what happened to Omi in her childhood. In a beautifully animated sequence she relates how she summoned Krampus and led to the destruction of her village. She alone had been left to bear witness, with an ornament given her by the creature as her only proof. Max is also given an ornament, but he throws it back at Krampus and takes everything back. He yells that he’s sorry and that he just wants his family back. Krampus laughs and throws him down into the pit where the others were sent.
At which point, Max wakes up on Christmas morning. Everyone is back, happy, and getting along — at least as well as can be hoped for. Either Max got his wish or it was all a dream, but it’s all been resolved. Order is restored, and the Christmas horror movie wasn’t so horror in after all. Except that when everyone is opening presents, Max unwraps an ornament from Krampus. Everyone stops what they’re doing and looks uncomfortable. The veil has been lifted. Their cheer is a lie. The camera pulls back and reveals that they’re in one of hundreds (at least) of snow clubs strewn throughout Krampus’ workshop.
A lot of horror movies have stingers at the end, one last jab to leave the audience screaming. Most of them are, quite frankly, crap. This one isn’t just good — it lands the film successfully. By playing it as they did, the filmmakers managed to entirely subvert the traditional happy holiday ending while simultaneously fulfilling it. It’s a cruel conclusion that upholds the satiric tone of the rest of the film, and it’s perfect. This is going to be the new star in my holiday film rotation.