Cinephiles have a weird tendency to get quite heated around the Yuletide season. Perhaps this is because they are constantly being drawn into that tiresome old debate over what does-and-does-not constitute as a ‘’proper’’ Christmas film. You know the drill by now. The question ‘’what are the definitive festive movies?’’ is raised and someone will inevitably make the case for either Die Hard, Gremlins or pretty much anything from the oeuvre of Shane Black. In retaliation, proponents of more traditional fare- like Holiday Inn or Miracle on 34th Street – will argue that these alternative picks shouldn’t really qualify, as they’re not ‘’about’’ Xmas per se. Rather, they just happen to be set in the month of December.
Standing their ground, these purists will emphasize that there is a blatant distinction between ‘’real’’ Noël films and those that merely use the season as a decorative backdrop. From there, a back-and-forth will unravel with everyone trying to convince the world that their wintery line-up is the most authentic. To reiterate, they won’t be bickering over who has the superior selection of movies, just whether their catalog is sufficiently ‘’Christmassy’’.
Why any of this matters is beyond me, as we’re just obsessing over arbitrary categorization and redundant pigeonholing. I mean, can’t we just enjoy whatever gets us into the holly jolly mood, without having others scrutinize our choices? Whether you like to watch The Polar Express, Jingle All the Way or Batman Returns, who cares? You do you!
Nevertheless, I do understand that most people spend Christmas with their loved-ones and that can make it quite challenging to decide upon a mutually agreeable flick. With that in mind, I’d like to propose a movie that will hit the elusive sweet spot this year and keep everybody satisfied. That’s right! I have an ace up my sleeve that will appeal to both sticklers-for-the-classics, as well as those of us who like a bit of edge with our December viewing.
This unassuming gem is none other than Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, an infectiously enjoyable horror romp that is also deceptively sweet and good-natured. Indeed, much like the director’s previous offering, Trick ‘r Treat, this charming little movie goes out of its way to capture the essence of its central holiday. The only difference being that, where the former was tapping into the anarchic energy and autumnal flavours of Halloween, Krampus is a Yuletide movie through-and-through.
In fact, with its winter wonderland aesthetic and knowing references to the likes of Home Alone, it might just be the most Christmassy movie of the 21st century. But if that makes it sound lame and kitschy, then perhaps I can entice you with the promise of homicidal gingerbread men and a carnivorous jack-in-the-box. See? There’s truly something for everyone!
So, what distinguishes Krampus as a sincerely festive movie? Well for a start, the plot is stuffed full of classic values and familiar tropes. There’s a dysfunctional, Griswold-esque household, unwanted relatives crashing the celebrations and a young boy at the center of it all (named Max), who is fed up with everyone being at each other’s throats and so forsakes the holiday in a spiteful outburst. Nothing out of the ordinary.
However, things take a darker turn when the suburb is suddenly enveloped in a mysterious blizzard that cuts off all communication with the outside world. Under the cover of this raging storm, the house is then beset upon by an army of ghoulish terrors. For you see, by turning his back on Christmas, Max has inadvertently summoned the wrathful shadow of Saint Nicholas himself, A.K.A Krampus. And in case it wasn’t clear, the folklore legend is not visiting to reward the family, but to punish.
It’s a very traditional set-up, one that plays out in a surprisingly wholesome and child-friendly way. Featuring only mild-language, moderate peril and very little bloodletting, it’s an old-school ‘’Gateway’’ horror along the same lines as Gremlins or The Gate. This gives the movie a playful sense of innocence, because it doesn’t have to worry about supplying gory kills or being too intense. Instead, it can focus on delivering a timeless message about embracing your family over the holidays. If you haven’t seen it, then this might sound like a bit of a stretch, but it’s a very plausible reading. After all, Dougherty clearly laments how the Christmas spirit has fallen to the wayside, thanks to rampant consumerism and selfishness.
For proof, just look at the biting depiction of Black Friday that opens the movie.
The director really emphasizes this theme throughout, as each of his characters acts like complete jerks and treat the season of giving with zero respect. For instance, Max’s workaholic father is frequently distracted by his job; his sister ditches the celebrations so that she can smoke weed; and there’s lots of petty squabbling about finances. Hardly an idyllic version of the festivities, but it’s debatably more honest and real.
You’re somewhat relieved then, when Krampus finally shows up to teach this bunch of ingrates a valuable lesson in good cheer. Because that’s what this film ultimately is; an old-fashioned cautionary tale, similar to A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. Like both of those canonical greats, Dougherty’s movie uses a supernatural conceit to force its characters into appreciating what they already have. Sure, it’s a little more a sadistic about it, but the underlying principle remains the same.
Actually, upon further inspection, Krampus has a surprising amount in common with Dickens’ literary classic. For example, they’re both optimistic Christmas narratives (masquerading as downbeat ghost stories), they both have a hidden dark side and they’re both about redeeming grouchy and miserable characters. But only one of them has a demonic Teddy Bear! So yeah, beat that Dickens, you hack!
Not only does Krampus have a warm, compassionate moral at its core, but it also happens to be one of the coziest-looking Christmas flicks around. I honestly can’t think of a modern film that better represents the holiday on a strictly visual level and that’s including the ‘’proper’’ ones like Arthur Christmas, or that new Netflix movie with Kurt Russell. The movie is positively drenched in festive iconography (fairy lights, roaring fires, candy canes, ornaments etc.) and as a result, every single frame is dripping with rich, nostalgic imagery. All of this is then beautifully complemented by the vibrant cinematography and the carefully curated soundtrack of iconic seasonal hits.
The details don’t stop there either, as there’s a couple of cute stylistic gimmicks sprinkled in for good measure, like an ingenious stop-motion sequence that cleverly recalls the beloved TV specials of the 60s and 70s. Hell, even the opening titles are written in the calligraphy of tacky Hallmark card!
Overall, Krampus is more than just another horror film that cynically hijacks Christmas for ironic effect. On the contrary, it exudes tinsel from its every pore and the setting is a truly inseparable component of its DNA – forming the basis of its premise, its visual style and its overall message. If that doesn’t make it a ‘’proper’’ Christmas film, then I don’t know what is.