not in our stars, but in ourselves
49/52: A fantasy movie
When the children have been good,
That is, be it understood,
Good at meal-times, good at play,
Good all night and good all day, —
They shall have the pretty things
Merry Christmas always brings.
Naughty, romping girls and boys
Tear their clothes and make a noise,
Spoil their pinafores and frocks,
And deserve no Christmas-box.
Such as these will never look
At this pretty Picture-Book.
For whatever reason – stronger than usual pagan traditions, harsh climates, dark and cold and long nights – the people of central, eastern, and northern Europe have some pretty wild folklore. One of these legends was, like other old pagan practices, folded into the relatively new celebration of Christmas among German and Alpine people. Where Santa Claus rewards good little boys and girls, his cloven-hoofed “shadow” punishes the naughty. Is any country’s Christmas tradition more naughty than America’s? Probably not. Krampus is, therefore, the hero we deserve – and Krampus is the Christmas movie we’ve always needed. Is it perfect? No. Is it a blast? You bet it is.
In an unnamed affluent suburb, a typical American family is getting into the typical Christmas spirit: among the shoppers beating each other to a pulp for last-minute Christmas deals at the mall, Max (Emjay Anthony) has disrupted a nativity play by beating up an older kid who’s been going around telling first-graders that Santa isn’t real. His mortified parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), drag him away from the fray – which eager audience members have been recording with their smartphones, all the better to Vine and Instagram and YouTube. Back at home, Tom’s mother, Omi (Krista Stadler), has been baking and getting into the Christmas spirit, a spirit that dissipates as soon as the family returns. Older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) just wants to escape to her boyfriend’s house and smoke pot. Tom just wants to hide out in his office and avoid his wife’s nagging. Sarah just wants her home to stay immaculate and preferably free of her incoming sister and family. Max just wants Christmas to be the way it used to be. Alas, the squabbling intensifies when Sarah’s sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), arrives with her Facebook comments section of a family: her gun nut husband, Howard (David Koechner); tomboy daughters Stevie and Jordan; blob-like son Howie, Jr.; baby; dog; and drunk old Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). After a disastrous Christmas dinner, where Stevie and Jordan read Max’s letter to Santa aloud, Max retreats tearfully to his room and rips the letter to shreds. It’s useless to hope for anything better with family like this, he figures, so he gives up. That’s all it takes, though: the torn fragments of his letter are sucked up into the sky, where a fearsome blizzard begins forming. It descends on the neighborhood instantly, knocking out all the power and rendering the roads nearly impassible. Krampus is in town, and he and his helpers – demonic-looking toys, gingerbread men, and elves – are here to teach this dysfunctional family what happens when all you do is take. Krampus is contrapasso in action: where St. Nick gives to those who’ve given all year, Krampus takes away those who’ve been destructive consumers – of food, of emotion, of goodwill, of anything. Omi has seen this before; in fact, when she was a little girl, Krampus descended on her Alpine village and took away everyone except her. He left her behind so she could let everyone know what they could expect if they didn’t behave. And, well, she tries – but aside from Max, no one listens to her until it’s too late.
It all sounds insane, especially to the uninitiated. Krampus does a great job of balancing the comedy and absurdism with absolutely balls-out horror: this isn’t like any Christmas tradition you’ve heard of, so it’s not going to be like any other Christmas movie you’ve seen. In a cast with so much comedic talent, it makes sense that there would be plenty of jokes (often quite dry; some of them seemed to go over the heads of the mostly young audience members in my theatre). However, they play the horror straight. For my part, I think it worked. The very premise of a goat-legged ancient spirit taking away naughty children (and adults who act like children) is crazy enough that it would have weakened the effect for the actors to be winking at the camera. As campy as Krampus’s helpers can be, the actors don’t play up the camp. How would you react if you saw a gingerbread man shooting at you with a nail gun? You would probably just about shit your pants. I mean, it’s all nuts – but it works.
I think the fact that everyone is so game, so willing to sell the horror and the comedy and the pathos all with equal conviction, is a central part of Krampus‘s success. It’s terribly cynical about the consumerist American Christmas season, and about the gooey sentiment coating barely concealed contempt for spending family time together. It’s not, however, cynical about what Omi insists is “the true meaning of Christmas”: giving, loving your family, sacrificing something important in order to make others happy. Christmas is the winter solstice holiday. It’s about finding light in the darkness, and looking forward to longer and brighter days ahead. Krampus is just a reminder to stay on the right side. He’s not evil, and the movie knows that. He is, as I’ve said before, a corrective force: he punishes, but he releases his captives once they repent. Just like Hannibal Lecter, he leaves you alone if you’re good. It’s only if you’re bad, or rude, or greedy, or cruel, that you have to worry. That’s not a terrible lesson to take to heart.
And anyway, it’s an incredibly well-constructed horror film. At under 100 minutes, it doesn’t waste any time. The story keeps moving forward, even though it needs to make sure we’re familiar with the concept of Krampus. It’s in a surprisingly lovely animated sequence – a flashback narrated by Omi – that we hear the entire story about who Krampus is and how he operates. This is a smart touch because, up to now, we haven’t seen Krampus himself up close. In her story, Omi only sees the shadow of Krampus as he takes away her family. Back in “reality” (in the movie), we come face to face with Krampus at the same time as Omi. I think this is a smart way to do it: we’ve seen what he does, we know what his game is, so it probably wouldn’t be effective to try to stage his introduction (he comes down the chimney, just like Santa) as a jump-scare. Omi is standing there, ready to look him in the eye – and so we’re introduced to the monster with courage instead of fear. It’s an unusual way to do it, but it works. Krampus lets his helpers do all the jump-scares. He’s the big bad. He’s above such stunts. Interestingly, I think he only faces Max and Omi directly. The helpers dispatch of most of the rest of the family; Krampus himself deals with the two heroes of the story. He probably figures that they’re the two who will best understand the lesson he’s come to teach, and he’s not wrong.
As an aside: Krampus would have come for many, many, many people in my theatre last night. Phones lit up, people talked to each other loudly, snotty little teenagers continually rearranged their seating all through the movie. Without giving too much away, the first twist of the ending – which sets up a far better twist at the very end – caused a large handful of people behind me to deride what they were seeing, loudly and obnoxiously. I wanted to tell them to get the fuck out if they couldn’t shut their traps – but, well, I actually took the movie’s lesson to heart. Krampus would want me to lead by example, you know? He’ll take care of those who don’t follow.