By Daniel Stout
Krampus is a Christmas story, but not for children. It is a comedy, but doesn’t elicit knee-slappers, a horror story without real goose bumps. In a Chicago suburb, a family and relatives celebrate Christmas Eve: Egg nog, decorations, and wrapped presents. Yet something’s not right. Husband Tom (Adam Scott) and spouse (Toni Collette) dread the whole thing, struggling to get into the spirit, but feeling guilty for their joyless demeanors. The son clings desperately to a crumbling belief in Santa while his sister and cousins mercilessly torment him. The German grandmother is crestfallen about the dearth of yuletide delight; the aunt (Conchata Ferrell) could care less downing bottle after bottle of Schnapps. What could be worse? A blizzard has knocked out the power, and something’s on the roof. Is Santa here to save the day? No, it’s Krampus, from Austro-Bavarian folklore, and this family, devoid of kindliness, is on the verge of deadly retribution.
To say the least, Krampus is atypical holiday film fare. Few Toyota Odyssey vans of LDS kids will run red lights for this one. Even niche fans of realist or Christmas horror such as Bad Santa, Silent Night-Deadly Night, or Black Christmas will confront a cinematic conundrum. Krampus is a compressed cornucopia of sophomoric jokes, dry wit, M. Night Shyamalan “Village” ogres, little gremlin-like snarky creatures, uncouth relatives a la Christmas Vacation, dismally dark street scenes devoid of sound and people, and sumptuous shots of holiday culinary delights that make it difficult to discern what, precisely, we have here. Postmodern director Michael Dougherty breaks down cultural categories so we don’t label it as merely dark comedy or horror. After ten minutes, the genre-grouping exercise is futile, so we focus on the German folklore, the most compelling element, and the link to the moral comment, which if you clear away the clichés and overused shock tactics, enlightenment is imminent. Krampus’s creepy approach is the movie within the movie, symbolizing impending doom for blasphemers of December’s sacred day. Equally compelling is why Krampus lore is reemerging in Europe and the U.S.
In Germanic legend, the humanoid ogre visits children with St. Nicholas, the former bearing coal and bundles of sticks for the misbehaved, and the latter treats for the obedient and eager-to-please. St. Nick’s garb evolved from Catholic regalia to the present Santa suit with stocking cap. Krampus on the other hand, has horns, one human foot and one hoof, and in ancient versions, a sack to carry aberrant kids off to his lair. In the movie, the howls chill the bones, and behemoth stomping on the roof rattle the windows of the once sedate dwelling below. It’s too late to plead, “I’ll be good, I promise,” or at the very least, “Next year I’ll be merrier.”
Krampus is less menacing in its encore performance in popular culture, featured on Christmas cards and at holiday Krampus parties. In the show American Dad, a Krampus celebration disses disingenuous materialist foolery in Monday night’s episode, “Minstrel Krampus.” Discerning the revival’s meaning is tenuous in this early stage; it seems like a backlash to the monotonous commercially-injected rituals of shoppers’ Christmas. Even the eighties band, “Twisted Sister” has a Christmas album. Can we endure another year of “Clap-on, clap-off: The Clapper!”? A jaw-dropping department store scene, set to Andy Williams singing, “The most wonderful time of the year,” features kids fist-fighting in the line to see Santa, and people punching each other for the last big-screen TV.
The real Krampus, then, isn’t a hairy beast, but a monster nonetheless: the monster of putrid vestiges of something wonderful allowed to fade, namely the holy day of Christ’s birth. Some parents will take offense at a Christmas horror movie (this one is PG-13), but this reaction overlooks the filmmaker’s true intent: to reintroduce an ancient story that will, hopefully, aid our movement toward more serene and reflective holiday worship. As Black Friday approaches next year, perhaps the phrase, “Oh no, here comes Krampus,” will help thwart distractors from the spirit of peace we long for so voraciously.
Hats off to director Michael Dougherty for presenting the Krampus figure with nuance, accurately capturing the finer points of the legend. Folklorists will notice these details, but if overlooked by the lay viewer, the essence of the folktale will get through. Stories are powerful, and this is one we sorely need, shock and all.