[Interview] 'Krampus' Director Michael Dougherty
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[Interview] ‘Krampus’ Director Michael Dougherty Talks the Pagan Holiday, the Folklore of the Christmas Devil, and Scaring People into Spending Time with Their Family



When people think of Christmas, they often associate the annual holiday with candy canes, little drummer boys, and Nativity scenes, but, as Krampus writer/director Michael Dougherty points out, “the version [of Christmas] that we’re celebrating in the malls, that’s not Christmas”. It may sound odd, but Dougherty is actually correct, as the roots of Christmas, just as the roots of Christianity itself, actually lie in Paganism. For example, long before the Christmas tree became the designated spot for Santa Claus to leave presents for good little boys and girls, the evergreen trees were used as a repellant against ghosts and illness during winter solstice. The same can be said for the initiation of gift giving, which was originally intended as an act of good will towards the other worldly, with presents being left on the front steps of a person’s home in the hopes that any evil spirits would snatch them up and leave the persons inside alone.

“Christmas used to be a very spooky, mystical Pagan holiday,” explains director Dougherty, “It was debaucherous. People stuffed themselves and got drunk, and they believed in dark winter spirits and ghosts and Christmas witches, and so there’s a whole side of the holiday which has not been explored or embraced, and I think it needs to be brought back to complete Christmas”. Dougherty’s done his research, and what better filmmaker to bring the Yuletide holiday full circle than the man who captured the essence of Halloween so perfectly with his previous endeavor, Trick ‘r Treat?

In his newest feature, Krampus, Dougherty, along with his co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields, explore the mythology of the dark companion of Saint Nicholas with a mischievous sense of humor, and surprisingly, a ton of heart. While Krampus has grown abundantly more popular in recent years, the origin of Dougherty’s fascination with the demonic creature stemmed long before he even knew who Krampus was. “I’ve always wanted to do a creepy Christmas movie. When I was a kid, I used to draw a character called ‘Santa Claws’, because that was like, the wittiest thing I could come up with then” recalls Dougherty. “When I was an animator, I used to draw my own Christmas cards, and all of the cards would have a very Charles Addams or Edward Gorey twisted tone to them. So, it’s always been in the back of my mind, and then, I discovered Krampus in 2004 via the greeting cards. So, all of the greeting cards that they used to send out in the 1800s, early 1900s started popping up online, and I just fell in love with it. Like, the idea that there really was this dark, devilish Santa Claus-esque figure from European folklore, it was just irresistible.”

Obsessed with the notion of a Krampus themed horror movie, but unsure how to tackle the story, Dougherty briefly shelved his passion for the horned beast, and moved on to film Trick ‘r Treat in 2007. Years later, Dougherty approached the subject once more, this time with his writing crew in tow. Together, they decided on the best possible course of action. “I teamed up with Todd Casey and Zach Shields, and we started talking about it, and we realized, well, the perfect vehicle for a Krampus movie would be a traditional Christmas movie”. As Dougherty points out, to him, Christmas movies exist in their own little snow globe, wherein a clashing family, no matter how sick of each other, always manages to overcome their differences and live happily ever after. When it came to their interpretation, however, the family members in their screenplay aren’t so lucky. “What if the family’s issues escalated, and then they sort of allow Krampus to seep into their reality? So, it really started as a Christmas family dramedy that gets invaded by a horror movie, or a dark fairy tale”.

KRAMPUS | via Universal Pictures

While the idea of injecting a demon into the seemingly pure Noel tradition may seem taboo, as Dougherty firmly states, he’s really only harking back to the traditional holiday films that have become known as classics. “I knew there was going to be a bit of an uproar, but you know, I love Christmas, too. It’s a pro-Christmas film, but in order to get that point across, it sort of takes you through a waking nightmare” says Dougherty, describing how he, in a way, takes on the persona of Krampus himself, as he tortures his viewers with frights in order to make them appreciate the peace and serenity of the season. “One of my biggest inspirations was A Christmas Carol, which is a ghost story, and a really scary nightmare if you think about it. It takes you through this nightmare in order to just reaffirm the true meaning of the holiday, and we really wanted to do something similar”.

Dougherty shows how if a person looks back at renowned holiday movies, he or she will find that these movies are actually much darker than most people remember. “Same thing with It’s a Wonderful Life. I mean, that guy is suicidal, about to jump off a bridge, and in comes this supernatural entity that says, ‘Well, reconsider that idea, because I’m going to take you through a version of the universe where you don’t exist, and it’s going to be a nightmare’, and that’s what gets him to cherish life again. So, there’s a long history of using Christmas stories to scare people straight”.

One of the most important aspects of the filmmaking process for Dougherty and gang was to decide which aspects of the vast mythology of the Austrian creature to include in their movie. “We’ve definitely Americanized him a little bit, in that it takes place in an American suburb in Ohio, and then we added the idea that he has helpers, like Santa Claus does, so, Krampus basically has the diabolical version of everything that Santa Claus does, so elves, toys, and other things”.

When it came time to discuss the look of the monster, Dougherty may have let slip his plans for the possibility of a sequel to his Yuletide terror movie, although the proposition is still very much up in the air. “We wanted to go for something that looked ancient, you know, that looked like it walked out of the dark ages, in a sense. The fur pelts, the heavy coats, the rusty chains, but we also wanted to acknowledge that everybody’s interpretation of Krampus is different, so we like the idea that we never fully reveal Krampus”. After the fact that the beast is shown in his entirety is pointed out to Dougherty, he replies with a sly smile that “You see a face, but is that his real face or not? His current appearance in this film might be…might be a rouse on his part,” Adding on that “There’s one thing we had to cut out of the script in some earlier drafts, that I might save for a sequel, so I can’t really say what that is”. Honestly, what it sounds like is that Dougherty is always up for a sequel to this movie, depending on how it does at the box office, and how wrapped up he gets with other projects, but nothing is set in stone just yet. Also, with the hint Dougherty drops about the fact that the face seen in the film may not be Krampus’ true form, suggests that Dougherty’s approaching the appearance of the character just like he did Sam in Trick ‘r Treat, where the audience believed for the majority of the film that the bag on Sam’s head was his real face, until it was yanked off in the climax, revealing an alien-shaped, pumpkin filled screaming smile underneath. If that’s the case, it will be exciting to see what Krampus really does look like, in what will hopefully turn into an entire franchise of Christmas-themed horror movies.

KRAMPUS | via Universal Pictures

Also, supposedly, there are many easter Trick ‘r Treat easter eggs hidden throughout Krampus, which leads the viewer to believe that the long-awaited Trick ‘r Treat 2 might be on the way soon. “Trick ‘r Treat 2 is a really rough outline at the moment, my hope is now to turn my attention back to Sam and Halloween, so yeah, fingers crossed”. An official release date is far from being set in place, but the news that Dougherty is still planning on making a sequel to his Halloween classic is exciting news, all by itself.

There may be some speculation about the secrets of the film, but one thing’s for sure — Krampus is definitely family friendly. “It’s meant to be, I think, a family holiday horror movie, but I don’t think parents should go in blind, thinking that it’s going to be kid safe like a Pixar movie, but it is definitely taking a page from really dark fairy tales, like the original Brothers Grimm style of storytelling. Bad things do happen to children”.

Frightful as it may be to younger patrons, Krampus‘ purpose doesn’t only lie in scaring kids into behaving. One motif that is mentioned often in the film is the idea of sacrifice. It’s easy to get distracted by the horror aspect of the feature, but Dougherty wants to make it clear that his movie is as much about spreading Christmas cheer as it is about terrifying small children. “I think, well, especially in today’s culture, where we get caught up in some of the more negative trappings of Christmas, the overspending, commercialization, all the things we all bitch about every year when it comes to Christmas, you know, running around and just not having enough time, what the holidays are really about are slowing down, turning off your phones, and spending time with people that you love, whether it’s your family, your friends, what have you, and just thinking about other people, for once, and that, in and of itself, especially today, is a sacrifice”.

Krampus haunts theaters starting on December 4th, 2015.