In Alpine folklore, Krampus is a horned creature who punishes naughty children during the Christmas season. The legend is an old one, with some anthropologists believing it to be pre-Christian, and still plays a part in Alpine culture today, with an annual Krampuslauf (or “Krampus run”) taking place in most Alpine towns. With such rich, fascinating source material to draw from, it’s frankly astounding that the film manages to be so bland.
Krampus tells the story of Max (Emjay Anthony), a young boy who wants to preserve his family’s Christmas traditions. His grandmother (Krista Stadler) seems to be the only family member who feels the same way, with his father (Adam Scott) constantly on the phone to the office, and his mother (Toni Collette) more concerned with ensuring that the house looks perfect. Things get worse with the arrival of Max’s dysfunctional extended family, who include a gun-toting uncle, two bullying female cousins, and a caustic, heavy-drinking great aunt. The last straw is when Max’s cousins mockingly read out his letter to Santa at the dinner table, after which he tells his family that he hates them and escapes to his room. Disillusioned, he tears up his letter and tosses the pieces into the night air. Unfortunately for Max, this small act has grave consequences, as the boy’s loss of Christmas spirit summons Krampus, the evil “shadow of Saint Nicolas” who comes to punish those who lose the true meaning of Christmas.
One of my main issues with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know who its audience is. On the one hand, with its child protagonist, comedy monsters (which include evil gingerbread men and a killer teddy bear), and talk of “Christmas spirit”, it seems like a film aimed at a family audience. On the other hand, it has a 15 certificate and some genuinely terrifying scenes, making it in actual fact unsuitable for children. This confused mixing of childlike simplicity and silliness with scenes that would make seasoned horror fans jump means that while particular scenes may be enjoyable, overall the film fails to hit the mark. There aren’t enough truly scary scenes for it to be that frightening overall, and the lighter, more comic moments frequently jar with or undermine the horror elements. The film feels like it’s trying to be everything at once, and perhaps in more capable hands it would have succeeded, but unfortunately Krampus just ends up feeling confused.
Personally, I think the film would have worked a lot better as a straight horror movie, rather than a horror-comedy. The Krampus legend is so frightening that it wouldn’t have taken much to make a truly terrifying film. The concept of this dark, primal creature from European folklore invading the beautiful home of a suburban American family is so deeply scary because it suggests that no matter how advanced our society becomes, we are still no match for whatever ancient evil came before.
The film does have many genuinely frightening moments, the best being the bits with Krampus’s elves (which reminded me vaguely of the orcs from The Lord of the Rings), and the scene in which the titular creature chases a terrified Beth through the blizzard. Although nothing was really made of them, I also quite liked the eerie snowmen that seemed to creep forward of their own accord, bringing to mind the topiaries from The Shining.
That said, Krampus definitely doesn’t make enough of the mythology on which it’s based. As aforementioned, the fact that Krampus is so rooted in the ancient and unknown is a lot of what makes him scary, and the fact that in the film he has animated gingerbread men and evil toys as henchmen felt really silly to me. Although this Krampus does keep many of his traditional attributes (such as horns, chains, and cloven hooves), more than anything he resembles a creepy version of Santa Claus, whereas, in folklore, Krampus looks like a huge, horned demon covered in hair. While I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with changing or playing around with mythology, this version of Krampus felt too Americanised, as though to communicate the fact that he is the “shadow of Saint Nicolas” the film had to actually make him look like Santa.
However, my biggest issue with the film was with its message; by which I mean that it didn’t seem to have one. With all its talk of family and Christmas spirit, Krampus sets itself up as a film that has something to say about Christmas (whether that be in regards to family, faith, commercialism, or all of those), but that isn’t how it plays out. Max loses his faith in Christmas, and ends up invoking the wrath of an evil, ancient creature. The logical thing would be that, through realising how much he actually loves his family, Max would remember why he loves the holiday and send Krampus back from whence he came. I won’t give the ending away, but suffice to say, this does not happen. If the film does have a message, it just seems to be “don’t complain about your crappy relatives or an evil German spirit will get you.”
To sum up, Krampus has moments of enjoyability, but without a clear audience, genre, or grip on the folklore on which it’s based, the film fails to live up to its potential.