Michael Dougherty’s descent into the Christmas season, Krampus, opens with a particularly potent scene that mines an array of familiar feelings we’ve all become accustomed to experiencing during the holidays: ennui, anxiety, rage and, most importantly, utter dread. During a slo-mo shot, a mob of blood-thirsty holiday shoppers take over a department store to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” while mouths foam and fists fly. It’s an important sequence that sets up the entire message of the fittingly horror film — that Christmas is a horror show all by itself, and that no matter what, we will never, ever, be able to escape it.
Krampus, released in 2015 by the director of the cult Halloween anthology Trick ‘r Treat, earned more than a modest takeaway in its opening weekend ($42.7 million with a $15 million budget) and seemed to completely fall off the radar shortly after hitting theaters. Perhaps it’s the fact that, with a cast including the likes of Adam Scott, David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell, and a trailer during which the first half frames comedic aspects of the film against a light-hearted Christmas jingle, audiences came into it assuming a slightly lighter, funnier take on Christmas horror. To be met with such grisly hopelessness unquestionably dampened expectations for some (at least, that’s what happened for this writer the first time around). Or maybe it was the draw-in of familiar faces against the nature of the horror itself, which includes a young girl being swallowed alive by a monstrous jack-in-the-box, a baby being kidnapped by a demon elf and a brief animated sequence where a young girl listens to her family being murdered by fantasy ghouls. But whatever the case may be as to why Krampus slipped to the cinematic wayside in the past few years, it remains understated Christmas horror in its sharp, gruesome glory.
“That’s what family is, Max,” Tom explains to his son (Emjay Anthony), who is feeling distraught after a catastrophic dinner with their mutually maligned relatives, “people you try to be friends with even though you don’t have a whole lot in common.” Before the terrifying events of the film unfold, Max’s family, consisting of Tom (Scott), mom Sarah (scream queen icon Toni Collette) and sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), have the displeasure of hosting their bumpkin maternal relatives for the remainder of the holiday season. Sarah’s sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), and her husband Howard (David Koechner), come with a gaggle of misfit children. Sarah and Linda’s mouthy Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell) also appears; she came along, uninvited, with Linda’s brood after they showed up at her house to find her packed with a suitcase.
The tension between the two families — at first comical in the easy target that is the gun-toting, Hummer-fucking, camo-donning, Mountain Dew-gargling caricature of Linda’s side of the gene pool — is caused largely by discrepancies in class (Sarah’s family lives in a large, suburban domicile, and Aunt Dorothy lives in a trailer). There is also a strain within Max’s immediate family dynamic as well, brought about by his own misbehavior, his older sister’s burgeoning departure from her adolescence and the growing distance between Tom and Sarah. This overwhelming absence of family togetherness and Christmas cheer is the root of Max’s faltering faith, and the very cause for the eventual horrors inflicted upon them all.
But the thing is, the spirit of Christmas was tainted long before Max tackles his cousin Stevie to the floor of the dining room, and throws bits and pieces of his Santa-addressed wish list out into the winter winds. Perhaps it is due to the oft-bemoaned materialism of the holiday that has plagued department stores mere hours after Thanksgiving, and poisoned our minds to think of nothing but sales and ourselves — and the tangibility of giving and receiving — over kindness and true altruism. Perhaps it is the fact that capitalism, to milk as much out of us as it can, as quickly from us as it can, has pushed back the holiday excitement earlier and earlier until Christmas trees can be seen sprouting up in a Michael’s craft store well before Halloween has come and gone.
No, the root problem with Christmas is the very nature of Christmas itself, fomented by greed and the forcing together of families that do not belong. For many, Christmas is a chore, not a respite, and thus the holiday becomes an amalgamation of festering negativity. “Krampus came not to reward, but to punish,” Max’s grandmother, Omi, asserts forebodingly to them all, as it becomes clearer that the pitter-patter upon the rooftop and the snowstorm ripping through the neighborhood outside are not signs of good tidings, but of their very reckoning. The families’ eventual coming-together as the film pushes on through horror after unimaginable horror is brought about only by their mutual agony and struggle for survival against an outside threat — without it, they would have continued on suffering through each other’s very proximity to one another.
Krampus is not only a harbinger of punishment for those who take their family and the Christmas season for granted, but an effort to remind us of the holiday’s true nature. Max’s plea to the monster at the end of the film, that his own damning of his family and of the holiday were not out of a desire to do away with them both entirely, but a desire to have things back to as they once were (“I just want Christmas to be like it used to”), is a useless, counterproductive cry. Christmas as it once was is the same Christmas as the one just before Krampus made his way into their lives; a compulsory, performative stage play, in an attempt to make it a little less obvious that the friction within family is truly existent. The only difference was that their problems had finally begun to spill into the world, rather than continuing to bubble steadily to a boil. Krampus both exposes the inherent ugliness of Christmas and forces us to deal with its reality — that families are built on the worst in us, and that Christmas brings it all out. In the end, however, it’s the truth of the struggle that ultimately brings the characters together; Krampus’ villainy is the ultimate favor.
Krampus merely laughs at Max’s desperate appeal for the return of his family, and the return of the Christmas he thought he once knew, before pushing the boy into a pit of fire. From this, Max awakens to find himself back in his bed, unharmed, on Christmas morning. He descends down the stairs to the living room, where he finds his two families together — finally — smiling, laughing, awaiting his arrival. Max’s face splits with joy as he joins Tom and Sarah on the couch to open his goodies, embracing the safety of his returned family, soaking in the sheer relief that the previous night’s events were all just a horrible nightmare, and understanding that he will never take their existence for granted ever again.
But there is more going on under the surface, as Max finds a small parcel under the tree with his name on it. He opens it to find the tainted token he was bequeathed in his supposed “dream” the night before: a heavily worn jingle bell, carved upon with the name “Krampus.” This causes a standstill to fall over the joyful Christmas morn, as Max gazes, horrified, down at the cursed artifact, while his family stares both confusedly at the object and at each other. It is in this moment that the spell cast by Krampus breaks for just a moment, then snaps back, as it is revealed to the audience that the family now exists in an endless Christmastime. They are imprisoned forever within a snow globe sitting atop a shelf in Krampus’ workshop, amongst hundreds and hundreds of others just like it.
This is what Christmas is, this is what family is, and this is what Krampus leaves viewers with. The end result of Max’s fate is the same result for many others, and what would’ve been the result even if Krampus hadn’t come a-knocking. The fate of family is inescapable, and so is the fate of all future Christmases. We are all trapped by the unreturnable gift of our lineage, and by the chokehold that the season has on both us and our culture. We will continue to host and to visit our insufferable relatives for Christmas dinner; we will continue to pretend everything is fine despite shouting matches or a suspicious lack thereof. There will be a candy veneer of forced pleasantness coating innards of the truth. Max did finally get what he wished for — a Christmas with his family to mirror the happier ones of the past — but in the end, it is clear that they are far worse off because of it.
Krampus is the pinnacle anti-Christmas movie in the way it thrives on the sheer awfulness of the holiday. It is ugly, it is unpleasant, and it is still utterly festive in the fact that it embraces the nature of the season as it has always been. If you are looking for a little Christmas cheer, then maybe Krampus isn’t the movie for you. But if you like ugly truths of reality to complement a bit of your cranberry sauce, it couldn’t come more highly recommended.
Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs) is a freelance film journalist based in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is staff writer for Screen Queens and contributor for Film Inquiry, with bylines in Reel Honey Mag and Much Ado About Cinema. She loves horror and her pet parrot.