Now that Halloween is in the rear-view mirror, the number of legitimate horror films traditionally take a nose-dive in favor of holiday blockbusters of various genres. Thanksgiving and Christmas films have generally favored heartwarming family fare, or PG-13 action-driven adventures. And although holiday horror lovers have occasionally been thrown a bone or two (pun intended) in the form of killer turkeys (Thankskilling, 2009) or holiday-themed slashers (Black Christmas, twice, 1974 and 2006; Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984; Slayride, 2016), the fables and mythologies behind our end-of-year celebration has received little attention, particularly from the standpoint of budgetary consideration.
Until this year.
This Christmas season viewers have been… er, treated… to not one but two newly-released films centering on a very old, primarily European mythology that has several variants but targets Krampus, an evil counterpart to Santa Claus who punishes naughty children during the Christmas season. Depending on your source of information, the origin of Krampus dates back long before Christ was attached to “mas.” Some experts on European fables cite Norse legends; others say this child-stealer comes from Teutonic folklore, and indeed, parades honoring Krampus are a big deal in Austria. Search YouTube for the Krampus celebration in Graz, Austria, and find the current celebration full of terrifying costumes that are very consistent and similar in their depiction. Other stories handed down through generations reveal Krampus to be the brother of Saint Nicholas, sometimes known as Black Peter in Denmark, who came into being when the dualism of the Catholic Church took hold in both Eastern and Western orthodoxies.
Very few films have dealt with this wealth of background information. In 2010, Netherlands director Dick Maas brought Sint (Saint) to the US, a mashup of mythological characterizations in which Saint Nicholas manifests on Krampus Day (December 5) if there is a full moon, to punish, steal, and/or kill children who haven’t been nice. Saint is a reasonably entertaining horror film, full of action, blood, and guts, although it is muddled in the telling. By far the best European import of this type to date is Rare Exports (Finland, 2010), wherein a small group of families on the Russian border, find the actual Santa Claus (buried? sleeping?) in the Korvatunturi mountains, and this version of Santa doesn’t toast them with a grin and a bottle of Coca-Cola. The Finns capture him/it, put him/it in a cage in a misguided attempt to make money for the struggling local economy, and then suffer his/its wrath when a multitude of Black Peter acolytes attack the people in a rather harrowing rescue attempt. A fine, exciting genre film with a child’s sense of wonder, Rare Exports is yet another story that plays a bit fast and loose with the traditional dichotomy of Krampus and Saint Nicholas.
Writer/Director Michael Dougherty, seemingly joined at the hip with director Bryan Singer (X-Men 2, 2003; Superman Returns, 2006; the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016) established himself as an excellent purveyor of holiday horror with the now-cult classic Trick ‘r Treat (2007), a set of connected Halloween tales that introduced Sam Hain, a creepy child-like figure wearing a gunny-sack over his head.
** WARNING! Possible spoilers from this point! **
In Dougherty’s new production, the incarnation of Krampus follows a mix of original traditions including a very strong fairy tale vibe. Krampus arrives on the scene after young Max (Emjay Anthony) tears up his Christmas letter to Santa Clause in a fit of rage and frustration brought about from bickering and lack of holiday spirit in his parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette). When equally-dysfunctional familial relations descend on the already-troubled family, the stage is set for both black comedy and eventual horror. Although Dougherty’s opening fifteen minutes conjures up strong similarities to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (including Conchata Ferrell in the role of sour, sarcastic Aunt Dorothy while channeling Berta from Two and a Half Men), he invests each character with a compassionate, loving core that shines through now and then. When Krampus finally arrives, the peril encompasses not only children but adults as well, and their argumentative and contentious natures are supplanted by strong emotional bonding. Viewers come to root for the families. This is not a film that follows a linear slasher, one death after another, story format.
Production design and set decoration by veterans Jules Cook and Daniel Birt, respectively, is absolutely stunning. From the arrival of a massive blizzard that takes out neighborhood power, to the appearance of twisted, nasty-looking snowmen that multiply in front of the protagonist’s home, viewers are taken into an entirely different dimension. Krampus himself is doled out sparingly, with shadowy images of something jumping across neighborhood rooftops, to gigantic cloven hooves stomping through the snow-covered streets. It’s an intense, highly suspenseful tactic. Viewers looking for standard plotting tropes will be pleasantly surprised to find very few. Dougherty inserts a few twists that keep the action and mystery running at top speed. Special effects are numerous, mixing very good CGI where necessary with some excellent practical puppetry. Every effect from creature design to matte painting and more is supplied by a group of New Zealand-based companies headed by the well-known Weta Digital. There is a decent budget for this film, and it shows.
The most recent issue of Rue Morgue Magazine (December, #162) features cover art, production snapshots, and an interview with Dougherty in which he discusses his motivation and rationale for this film. Most of us already know that Michael Dougherty can write and direct appealing horror films – and for this reason, I am willing to forgive him for Superman Returns – but with Krampus, he’s set a higher bar for himself. Trick ‘r Treat 2 has been announced, which is indeed good news. But I would like to see Dougherty continue with solid one-offs. He has a talent and imagination that should not be confined to franchise film production.