The Christmas that middle-class, capitalist America gets is not the Christmas that middle-class, capitalist America deserves. In the worst way possible.
This is the message that director/writer Michael Dougherty sends in the first few minutes of the unexpectedly unnerving Krampus. Dougherty, previously a screenwriter for superhero films such as X2 and Superman Returns who has now switched to holiday horror films (quite the tonal shift), doesn't really dedicate himself to sustaining that message across the whole movie. Fortunately and unfortunately, I don't think that was his goal.
Dougherty's goal with Krampus was to spend 5 minutes criticizing consumerist greed, and then give up the social commentary to mercilessly torture the American families participating in it for 93 minutes. The analytical part of me thinks "man, what an unworthy goal"- but the rest of me admits, "that movie was damn entertaining!"
Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like the gruesome slaughter of children!
With that out of the way: I wouldn't classify Krampus as a horror movie or a social commentary. This is a dark black comedy that gets off on being bleak and disturbing, twisting everything everyone loves about Christmas, and not caring whatsoever about the sanctity of human life that even the darkest of more serious films hold dear.
It's a lump of coal that has no desire to be an optimistic present. And for some deranged reason, it works.
The premise is this: typical unappreciative family reunites with their gun-toting, gross cousins and none of them appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. Naturally, Santa does not pay the town a visit: instead Krampus- the evil spirit that is the "shadow of Santa"- storms in with a horde of holiday-themed demons and begins trying to murder everyone. Family fights back. Will they discover the real spirit of the season before they're all bisected?
Right off the bat, the characters might sound like nothing more than caricatures. That's accurate. No one in Krampus ever really registers as a human being. It's a Christmas celebration of well-worn stereotypes: the father who's too focused on business, the shrewd and clean mother, the social media obsessed daughter who's dating a bad boy, the wise but quiet foreign grandmother, and the naive young son who still believes in Santa.
But wait! We haven't gotten to the cousins' family yet! *Takes a deep breath* There's the nationalistic ugly American uncle, the sloppy but sympathetic aunt, the masculine and mean female cousin duo, the fat kid who never says one word, the drunkenly rude grandma who hates kids, and even the cute baby that exists for no discernable reason.
I was surprised to discover that Tyler Perry wasn't playing every character in the movie.
The screenplay tends to err to the side of too silly as well. Any comedy that comes from dialogue rather than murderous proceedings falls flat and immediately comes off as trite. Old jokes, cheesy jokes, caricatures saying things you've heard said many times.
But maybe these characters are designed to be unlikable and cheap- because Krampus is far more about what horrifying fates befall them.
The movie works due to its persistent lust for (somewhat) innocent blood; stopping at nothing to put these families through hell. And that hell is a masterpiece of visual effects and sound design. Krampus itself and its demonic holiday minions look and sound incredible. They're revolting contortions of all your beloved Christmas memories.
The terrifyingly but thoughtfully crafted onslaught of monsters legitimately disturbed me, unlocking some kind of primal fear that I was not comfortable experiencing- especially when even cinematic children aren't safe. A wonderfully done stop-motion sequence serves to break up the terror and offer some backstory right when it's needed.
It's never actually a scary film, but the hell ends up being a hell of a lot of fun. Krampus is an unusual blast in that way. It certainly would've benefitted from an R-rating: the bloodletting's PG-13 nature is oddly restrained for a movie that couldn't care less about impaling children. Maybe it's a morally good thing that we weren't subjected to an R-rated Krampus, actually. That'd be scarring.
Not that Krampus isn't sufficiently scarring already! This movie is a worthwhile holiday horror, and it stays bleak enough to earn such a title until the last desolate second.