Krampus film review: bringing the horror to Christmas

Is Michael Dougherty’s Krampus a gift or a lump of coal?

Krampus

If anyone’s qualified to turn Christmas into a terrifying cautionary tale, it’s Trick R Treat’s Michael Dougherty, which is why our expectations for Krampus were very high. Having seen it, we’re confident that, while it may not be for everyone, this could be the new addition to your annual seasonal viewing.

It’s 23 December and young Max (Emjay Anthony) is already struggling to hold on to his Christmas cheer. When his cousins steal his letter to Santa, which details all the ways in which he wishes his family could come together like they used to, he tears it up and throws it out away, at which point the power goes out and a blizzard begins.

There’s no signal, no heat, and no one to help when an ancient evil descends on their home. Can they keep the fire hot and keep each other safe, or will they pay the price for forgetting the true meaning of Christmas?

Much as Trick R Treat focused on the importance of following the rules of Halloween, Krampus is all about paying Christmas the proper respect. Dougherty opens his movie with a slow-motion sequence of superstore carnage, with adults fighting over toys and children crying on Santa’s lap.

Store-bought cookies, families fighting, working during the holidays…There’s a reason why Max’s Austrian grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) looks so worried: every ancient rule has been broken.

The film is at its wobbliest during this Home Alone-esque set-up, and although the excellent cast sell the Christmas-cookie-cutter characterisation (Toni Collette’s Sarah feels a little too firmly set on “brittle control freak”), it feels like we’re on very familiar ground. However, when the dark and snow descend, the film quickly hits its stride. An early encounter with Krampus makes it very clear that the threat is real, and despite some pacing issues, the tension doesn’t really let up.

The question of the film’s audience will obviously be raised, with a PG-13 rating but some really quite intense scares. The giddy monster horror of Gremlins seems to have been used as a template, with nightmarish (and beautifully designed) creatures and a body count. There are wackier elements, like the evil gingerbread men, but for the most part it takes its mission to scare its younger viewers very seriously.

It helps that the cast is so strong. The four leads are perfectly chosen, finding the humour but taking the material totally seriously. Toni Collette and Adam Scott make for a strong emotional anchor, David Koechner is dependably excellent, and Fargo’s Allison Tolman is on great form yet again.

Cloven

The film’s total respect for Christmas tradition is mirrored in the seriousness with which it approaches the family drama. For every terrifying face-off with one of Krampus’ minions, we have a scene in which this dysfunctional family begins to repair its bonds, which in turn makes their failure to keep each other safe all the more distressing.

The film’s shifting focus between Max and the adults does again beg the question of who the film’s really for, but the answer is simple. Kids looking for a scary movie at Christmas will be terrified, and big kids who still love Gremlins will have a great time.

Watching a screaming Collette, Tolman and Scott tangle with bizarre monstrosities based on Christmas toys in a poorly lit attic while Koechner faced off with gingerbread men armed with a nail gun in the kitchen, we gave thanks that such a dark, weird and hugely entertaining movie exists. It’s a bit rickety, but if you’re looking for something to offset the treacle, we highly recommend this wickedly fun gift.