About ten years ago, a friend of mine went to study abroad in Austria and when he returned, he brought word of the Krampus. I remember finding the entire concept of the Anti-Santa both hilarious and terrifying, but I was also a bit disappointed that the figure had never caught on here in the US.

Then it seemed that over the following decade, the Krampus would begin to do exactly that: Catch on here in the US. He started showing up in internet memes, guest spots on Venture Bros. and American Dad, then a slew of direct-to-DVD shit fests. It was a thrill to finally see the goat-legged molester of children get his due on our shores, but he remained crammed off into the margins. He still hadn’t gotten his big break, his Ed Sullivan Show moment here in America.

Thankfully, Director Michael Dougherty came along and now we have a new holiday tradition on our hands.

Krampus (Legendary Films)

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The young Max (Emjay Anthony) loves Christmas and believes in the holiday spirit, but that faith starts to waver as he’s progressively subjected to all the cynical unpleasantries of the season. When tensions between his family and visiting in-laws finally come to a boil, Max momentarily turns his back on the concept of Christmas cheer, abandoning his belief in Santa Claus. That was a big mistake, as his jaded tantrum summons the ancient creature known as the Krampus (Luke Hawker), a malevolent old world entity who punishes those who lack faith in the Yule. One by one, the Krampus dispatches with Max’s family, who are now trapped in their home and hunted by the Krampus’ happy helpers.

Krampus is something of a spiritual sequel to Dougherty’s previous horror film, Trick ‘r Treat. Both films are themed around the holidays (Christmas and Halloween) and see those who do not respect the ancient customs succumb to violent ends at the hands of that holiday’s darkest mascot. In the case of Trick ‘r Treat, that mascot was Sam, a familiar if entirely fabricated entity. Krampus, on the other hand, delves into legitimate Germanic mythology to mine its star monstrosity.

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If there’s one thing Dougherty is a pro at, it’s how to construct a film. His pacing and storyline assembly is meticulous and seamless. In the case of Trick ‘r Treat, it was an anthology film told out of chronological sequence where all the different narratives wove in and out of each other, so by the end you were gradually exposed to a much larger scenario. Krampus is far more traditional in its structure, but no less impressive in its construction.

What Dougherty goes for is a gradual escalation of threats. The film begins with the usual stuff; the lights go out, dark shapes are seen from a distance, something is wrong and nobody knows what to do about it. But soon the minions of Krampus begin their assault on the family and from that point on, the movie only dials things up a notch at a time and never slows down until the climax.

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The minions of Krampus come at the family in carefully tiered waves, with each wave being more monstrous and dangerous than the one before it. The first minions are played mostly for comedy, the second tier are humorous but deadly, the third set are violent and completely devoid of any comedic trappings, and after that it’s the Krampus himself.

I loved the execution, as most films are written under the strict scriptwriting rule of “peaks and valleys”; the action and the tension has to rise and fall over and over throughout the course of the film. Krampus is one big peak, escalating at a rapid grade with no dips in the road along the way.

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This is definitely a “family” horror film and while the trailers and commercials didn’t make that clear, Dougherty was pretty upfront about it in all his interviews. It’s on the intense side of family horror, not a carefree as Gremlins but about on the same level as The Gate. There are scary monsters all over the place, though many of them are played for laughs or given a comedic angle to take the edge off. Blood is absent for the most part, save for a brief scene where we see a character’s wounded leg.

I liked the family angle for the film; I think it gives Krampus a wider net to cast and more younger viewers can get to see it. Being aimed at a larger age demographic doesn’t automatically make a horror movie less spooky or fun (Coraline was fantastic), but older genre fans may want to downshift their gears before checking it out if they were expecting eviscerations with candy canes and the like.

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The cast is primarily made up of comedians. Adam Scott of Parks and Recreations and David Koechner of The Office play dueling brothers in law who have to work together to protect their families from the Krampus. I think the movie was pretty smart about when to downplay the comedy and when to let it fly; the first third is like a bad sitcom, the second third is a horror-comedy, and the last third is pretty mirthless and brutal.

That said, some of the comedy can tread close to “wink wink, nudge nudge” stuff where the characters fall just short of acknowledging that they’re in a movie. The scene with the killer toys in the attack comes to mind, as Adam Scott deadpans “Oh come on!” and “You gotta be kidding me!” dialogue while getting stabbed and bitten. Such moments are rare, though, and not too oppressive.

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Nearly all the special effects are practical and I think that made a world of difference. The visuals don’t go for realism, which I gather was intentional, as the whole film seems to go for a surreal, otherworldly vibe. The atmosphere points towards the characters being trapped in some dimension out of time and space; familiar but wrong and with no escape in sight even if they do make it out of the house. I don’t want to talk too much about the monsters, as I’d be giving some of the better moments away. That said, the gingerbread men were the only overtly CG characters and were pretty dodgy looking, but they thankfully don’t stick around too long.

There’s very little for me to criticize Krampus over. Many of the characters are annoying, but that was clearly intentional; the setup is “in-laws who hate each other” so there’s no way around that. But even with the annoying characters, there are some surprises. Not all the characters you expect to last through the film make it to the third act while the ones who seemed obvious at first as victims outlive their peers. It keeps you on your toes.

Krampus is doing well at the box office and with the critics, too. I’m already set on making it a holiday horror tradition. There’s a fun and comedic aspect to it, but much like Gremlins and Beetlejuice, that’s hardly a knock against it.