Has commercialized holiday cheer got you down? Do you find yourself longing for the ghoulishness of the spooky season amid December decorations? You’ve come to the right place. In the darkest time of the year and in the spirit of traditional ghostly Christmas celebrations, enjoy our “12 Slays of Christmas” series. For twelve days leading up to Christmas day, we will thrill and chill you with analysis of Christmas-related horror films, lore, true crime, and more.
After seeing Krampus (2015) by myself the night before it came out, I immediately loved it. In fact, I was even moved to write about it just after its release. (I even included my favorite trailer for the movie in that article.)
I remember having to explain to my younger brother who Krampus is before showing him this movie. For those of you who aren’t sure, let me give you the very basic rundown: Santa Claus brings gifts to people who’ve been nice. Many European holiday season celebrations also tell of Krampus, who punishes the people who’ve been naughty. Exactly how Krampus does so varies depending on whom you ask, leaving it all a bit of a mystery.
But if Krampus is any indication, you don’t want to be on the Naughty List.
Ever since I showed it to my brother, watching Krampus has become a twisted tradition of its own. Krampus has claimed a spot in my personal annual holiday lineup right alongside Charlie Brown, a bundle of Ebenezer Scrooges, the Grinch, the Muppets, and many more…though he is considerably taller.
Make sure you keep your name off the Naughty List this year by finding out just what makes Krampus, both the character and the movie, tick.
The first act of Krampus shows where the comedy comes from: the clash of the chaos against the backdrop of Christmas, and the clash of the characters in the family against each other. The opening scene alone not only shows this clash, but also one of the central themes of the film.
People are shopping for and buying gifts for loved ones, sitting on Santa’s lap for pictures, and putting on a Christmas pageant. These are all popular Christmas activities that can inspire warm, fuzzy feelings, whether as memories, exciting events to look forward to, or both—when they go well. These are not going well. No one is having a good time…except some security guards getting cathartic use out of their tasers, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) being amused by a Christmas pageant breaking out into a fight, and the blissfully unaware pageant accompanist.
Clearly, it’s not the activities alone that make Christmas memories—or, at least, good Christmas memories.
After this wide-ranging opening sequence, we narrow our focus to one particular family: the Engels. Sarah (Toni Collette) is stressed as she just tries to keep up and keep the peace while mumbling sardonic comments that sometimes undercut her efforts, Tom (Adam Scott) is taking more work calls, Beth is tuned out, and Max (Emjay Anthony) just wants the family to be together, open up, and show some love.
Luckily, Max has his Omi (Krista Stadler) on his side. Omi has the wisdom, insight, and heart of, well, a grandparent at Christmas. However, there’s clearly more to Omi than she’s letting on to her grandson.
When Sarah’s sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), brother-in-law, Howard (David Koechner), their own four kids, and Sarah and Linda’s Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) show up, their boisterousness immediately clashes with the Engels’ repeated attempts to keep peace. As the bickering continues and escalates as all the members of the family interact with each other, there are certainly a lot of laughs.
It’s at dinner when the familial proceedings really come to a head. Every member of this gathering has their flaws, and the one thing they all have in common is how much they clash, even within their own immediate families. It begins humorously, but ends on a painful note, figuratively and literally.
It has heart, which makes it a little more painful to watch these characters hurt each other, intentionally or unintentionally, but this first act is also very, very funny. The opening scene’s clash of chaos and cynicism against the supposedly warm and affirming Christmas goings-on has already shown us the absurdity of it and given us permission to laugh at it, and so, we do—to a point.
When some family members let everything slide for the sake of peace and others take advantage of this with deliberate antagonism, the verbal blows turn to physical blows and break Max’s spirit, leading to an interesting conversation about family and how to find meaning when DNA doesn’t seem to mean much and when those around you seem determined to be cruel. The resolution about how kindness takes effort, that it can be hard to muster up that effort when others take advantage of you or mock you for it, but that the effort can still be worth it in the end to make things meaningful for yourself and others, is an interesting one that acknowledges how it feels when it seems the world is against you.
Little do the Engels know that the world is about to literally turn against them.
So… if we already have a biting look at how Christmas traditions can become empty, what does Krampus add to the Christmas cookie mix?
The horror comes from Krampus, his helpers, and the havoc they wreak. Even though the creatures and chaos are “Christmas-influenced,” they can be genuinely chilling (pun intended).
From the hulking, yet shockingly swift Krampus, to his smaller, more devious helpers, to whatever unseen creature lurks beneath the snow and chomps a sizable bite out of Howard’s leg, Krampus’ whole operation is clearly a very real threat.
Even the most comical of Krampus’ crew get a threatening edge when they’re wrapping people in chains and whisking them away to an unknown fate.
The family’s situation becomes increasingly hopeless as they realize how isolated they are, their initial strategies to outlast the threat are foiled, their defenses are compromised, and more and more of their own are taken away. The elves’ eventual storming (pun intended) through the front window, finally letting the bitter blizzard’s full force into the home, shows that the family didn’t stand much of a chance in the first place.
So…with the holiday horror and Christmas comedy both so strong, how can they blend like the reds and greens of Christmas without mixing and making a muddy brown mess?
How They Mix
If you didn’t know the premise of Krampus, you’d never know in the first act that the “shadow of St. Nicholas” is looming just on the other side of a ripped-up letter.
Before Krampus comes on the scene, we have to see why he’s going to come on the scene. Unlike many other movie monsters, Krampus doesn’t attack at random: instead, he targets specific people for specific reasons. To start with Krampus raiding the Engel’s house would be exciting at first, but we wouldn’t know who these characters are, how they relate to each other under normal (as “normal” as any holiday family gathering is) circumstances or have simultaneous feelings of “I hope they win against Krampus!” and “…I get where Krampus is coming from.”
The first act lays familial chaos over the backdrop of Christmas. The traditions and hallmarks of Christmas aren’t a comfort, but a source of stress and strife. From that point on, Krampus and his holiday horrors lay themselves over the same backdrop. The traditions and hallmarks of Christmas still aren’t a comfort, but now are the source of the horror. Clashing two such diametrically opposed elements creates a sliding scale where some scenes are genuinely horrifying, others are just off-putting enough to be creepy, others are funny, and others have some combination of all three.
Even the score adds to the clash, from the warm “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” underscoring the chaos and misery of the opening scene, to the creepy use of “Carol of the Bells,” to Krampus announcing his arrival “Up on the Housetop,” to the heart-wrenching use of “Silent Night.”
The clash works beyond choices in visuals, music, and dialogue. While those all play a factor in enjoying both the comedic and horror aspects of Krampus, the key reason it works is because of the heart of the characters behind it. We know them. We may not love them all, but even the ones we’re glad aren’t in our own families show humanity.
Christmas and horror. These two elements shouldn’t go together. They’re polar opposites (pun intended). Like red and green being on opposite ends of the color wheel. Or bitter blizzards and hot chocolate being on opposite ends of the thermometer. Or toys and eating children being on opposite ends of… life experience. And yet, when you put them together, they’re at least interesting. When you put them together with heart behind it, they gain significance.
Krampus, being a Christmas horror movie, most likely would’ve been interesting regardless. But because it runs deeper than wanton destruction that happens to be around the holiday, it’s more engaging, making the horror, comedy, and heart all hit harder.
As the film states and demonstrates by example, it’s not just about what you do. That’s just the wrapping paper: pretty to look at, but ultimately, easily and inevitably ripped away. It’s your intentions and attitude that fill the inside of the wrapping paper with something beautiful that will last. That takes effort, and it takes sacrifice.
Whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year, whether you’ve never heard of Krampus or have known about him since you learned about holiday celebrations around the world as a little kid (I can’t be the only one, right?), or whether you’re filled with Christmas holiday spirit or are looking for something a little different than all the “warm and fuzzy” films playing incessantly this time of year, I recommend Krampus. It’s dark, it’s funny, and, like all the best holiday movies, it has meaning.
We’ve all experienced loss this year. The supposedly “small” losses feel earth-shattering. The ambiguous losses of things that could’ve been weigh heavily. The irreplaceable losses feel unfathomable. Some losses will heal, be forgotten entirely, or be replaced with something even better. Some will do so quickly, while others will take more time.
Some, however, will ring hollow like a Krampus bell through the rest of our lives. Even as I write this, I feel the weight of every loss I’ve experienced this year. Ending such a year with a holiday celebration of any kind feels like a clash with the rest of the year leading up to it.
We may not be able to afford to give the gifts we’d like to give to those we love. We may not even be able to see those we love in person. Our usual traditions we look forward to may be impossible. The ones that can be done remotely or alone may make us feel a heavy emptiness instead of filling us with the warmth and joy they usually do. Even reminding ourselves that those we can’t see or have lost would want us to celebrate may not help lift our spirits in the moment. We may feel broken. We may feel empty. We may have guarded our hearts. All of that is completely understandable.
But as the year wraps up, maybe we can risk making the sacrifice of unwrapping our hearts, even if it’s just a corner, of keeping up hope when others are hopeless and may not be happy that you’re not, of giving to someone else. Maybe it’s a gift. Maybe it’s continuing a tradition that’s lost meaning for you but will make someone else happy. Maybe it’s altering a tradition because, even though the altering will be painful, it’ll still offer some form of connection across the distance. Or maybe it’s just letting someone open up to you, or opening up to someone yourself, sacrificing the security of a guarded heart in exchange for the chance at human connection.
None of us knows what the answer is to all this loss. But nothing gets fixed without effort and sacrifice, even if that sacrifice is extending a little extra understanding to others, as we’d like others to do for us. We must do what we can to keep our spirits up. Keep going, even when it’s hard. Keep hope alive.
And, above all…