“Saint Nicholas is not coming this year. Instead, a much darker, ancient spirit. His name is Krampus. He and his helpers did not come to give, but to take. He is the shadow of Saint Nicholas,” says Omi.
Michael Dougherty, the co-writer of X2: X-Men United and Superman Returns, made his directorial debut with 2007’s underrated and under-seen Trick ‘R Treat (under-seen mainly because Warner Bros. delayed its regular theatrical release for two years and then gave it a limited run in 2009 mostly as punishment for the underperformance of Superman Returns at the box office). Trick ‘R Treat has developed a cult following since then and has become a new horror cult classic (there’s even a sequel in development). Dougherty would follow up his acclaimed debut feature with Krampus, a fascinating take on the mythical Christmas creature who punishes instead of rewards. I recently had a chance to see Krampus on the big screen, and it was quite the thrill ride (the family drama elements meshed well with the Christmas horror elements).
2015’s Krampus follows the Engel family as they prepare for Christmas with visiting relatives. After a disastrous dinner, young Max tears up his letter to Santa Claus, losing his Christmas spirit and accidentally summoning the ancient Christmas demon of German folklore, Krampus. Dougherty brings together an impressive ensemble that includes Adam Scott (as Tom Engel), Toni Collette (as Sarah Engel), David Koechner (as Howard), Allison Tolman (as Linda), Conchata Ferrell (as Aunt Dorothy), Emjay Anthony (as Max Engel), Stefania LaVie Owen (as Beth Engel), Krista Stadler (as Omi), Lolo Owen (as Stevie), Maverick Flack (as Howie Jr.), Queenie Samuel (as Jordan), and Luke Hawker (as Krampus). The ensemble works off each other nicely; Scott and Collette give strong performances, as do Anthony as their son Max and Koechner as the douchebag brother-in-law who actually has a few redeeming qualities. Stadler is reserved as the grandmother who has some insight into the events that unfold, and Ferrell is hilarious as the aunt that everyone hates.
Dougherty, who co-wrote the screenplay with Todd Casey and Zach Shields, balances the humor with the horror elements. The slow build-up as the family tries to figure out what’s going on is very suspenseful (creepy-looking snowmen slowly appear in the family’s backyard), with the dread creeping in as family members disappear one by one. Dougherty stages some surprisingly funny action sequences that are reminiscent of the kind that Joe Dante might stage while a few others are reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (the film barely manages to stay in PG-13 territory, just avoiding an ‘R’ rating). Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography reflects the dark tone of the film, and Jules Cook’s production design creates several bleak environments. The creature effects by Weta Workshop are outstanding (particularly Krampus and his helpers; kudos also goes out to costume designer Bob Buck), and Douglas Pipes delivers a memorable, Christmas-themed horror score. Dougherty’s Krampus is a fun, edge-of-your-seat Christmas dark comedy thriller whose tone draws inspiration from the original Gremlins. Go catch it in theaters while you still can, and hope that Krampus doesn’t pay you a visit soon!