An important lesson G.I. Joe never covered but should have: if you see a gingerbread cookie dangling from a hook in the fireplace, don't try to eat it.
Last year, it was Gremlins. This year, Krampus (2015) fills my Christmas horror quota for October. Director Michael Dougherty tackled Halloween in his anthology Trick 'r Treat , and with Krampus, he sets his sights on Christmas.
Trick 'r Treat was an anthology comprised of several overlapping short stories about many different types of ghouls and monsters wreaking vengeance against those who failed to respect the rules and traditions of Halloween. Krampus builds a single, contained narrative, but the M.O. is the same: people who don't believe in the spirit of Christmas will be punished, and this time, it's not a stocking full of coal they can expect.
The movie opens with a truly monstrous vision: a Christmas shopping montage. As Bing Crosby sings "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," a maelstrom of violence and greed unfolds on screen as people desperately claw, fight, and scuffle for the hottest deals and the latest sales. Bunch of savages. Right away, we know this is not going to be a jolly look at the most wonderful time of the year.
Krampus begins like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation before introducing the horror elements. Obnoxious relatives (including David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell) arrive for Christmas, and young Max (Emjay Anthony) feels the weight of yet another bad Christmas bearing down. Dad (Adam Scott) is a workaholic, Mom (Toni Collette) is stressing everyone out trying to perfect the preparations, and sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is a snot. Only his Grandma (Krista Stadler) supports his efforts to keep the Christmas spirit alive.
After his heartfelt letter to Santa is mocked and he is humiliated in front of everyone, Max has had enough, yelling at his family and saying he hates them all. He tears up his letter and throws it out the window. Unknowingly, Max has just summoned Krampus, the demonic counterpart to Santa Claus. Krampus is a demon with an army of helpers and holiday-themed ways of punishing the naughty on Christmas.
Krampus is a bit of a step down from Trick 'r Treat, but it's still solid, black fun. Anyone weary of obnoxious relatives, the sickening levels of commercialism that has overtaken Christmas, and the phony Yuletide rosiness cynically painted over all of it will have their hearts warmed by the gleeful anarchy Dougherty unleashes to tear it all down. Tiny gingerbread men attack with a nail gun, a giant jack-in-the-box devours naughty children, and evil elves storm the living room with a sled.
Krampus and his littler helpers look great. They're wonderfully mean and nasty. They might not look entirely realistic, but as evil takes on Christmas imagery and characters, they're pretty cool, definitely the stuff of nightmares. The jack-in-the-box in particular is especially creepy.
When Krampus and company arrive, they're preceded by a heavy blizzard that knocks out the electricity in the house and turns the neighborhood into a frozen, haunted wasteland that as far frozen, haunted wastelands go is up there with The Thing or The Shining in terms of generating an isolated, lonely, desolate atmosphere. You just know no help is coming and there's no way out, and this time, there are ominous snowman popping up the front lawn. Unseen beasties lurk in the snow, waiting to drag poor humans under while Krampus swoops and pounces from rooftop to rooftop.
Compared to Trick 'r Treat, Krampus makes more of an attempt to create likable, multidimensional characters. Max's letter to Santa is sincere - he doesn't wish for toys or games but for his family to be happy - and these squabbling, unhappy family members do come closer together as the supernatural threat comes after them, but don't assume the movie becomes gooey and heartwarming. Bad things still happen to these people even if they're not completely bad.
The advantage Trick 'r Treat has over Krampus is the anthology format. The short-form nature of the stories ensured those tales were told with greater efficiency and more snap. Krampus drags in a couple of places, but I'm nitpicking. Krampus is a great example of holiday horror with some bite.