The holiday season is generally seen as the most magical time of the year, but not all of that magic is seen as good magic. In ancient European folklore, particularly German and Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, the horned-devil known as “Krampus” is the darker magical counterpart to St. Nicholas. While St. Nick rewards the good children with gifts and treats, Krampus is said to punish naughty children and take them back to his underworld – and this holiday season, the Christmas villain took the the screen once again in the not exactly self-titled movie, Krampus.
In this movie telling, the premise varies slightly from the original folklore legend in that the creature comes to punish not only misbehaving children, but anyone who has lost the Christmas spirit – children and adults alike, no one is safe from the Krampus. Summoned initially by a child who has become disillusioned with Christmas, the demon of the movie also seemingly grants one wish for that child, albeit in a very twisted way.
Directed by Michael Dougherty of Trick ‘r Treat fame, the movie stars Adam Scott and Toni Collette as parents Tom and Sarah Engel, Emjay Anthony as Max Engel, and Krista Stadler as the German grandmother Omi Engel. When Max loses his Christmas spirit due to the particularly horrible behavior of his cousins and their visiting family, he unwittingly summons the spirit of Krampus. What ensues is part horror, comedy and redemption story reminiscent of A Christmas Carol – and at one point, Omi explains the “Krampus” legend and describes her own personal experience with the demon during her childhood.
As the movie progresses, the initially disparate members of this dysfunctional extended family find they have to work together if they are to survive the onslaught of Krampus and his minions. They are still picked off one by one until only Max is left to face Krampus alone. He reiterates that he only wished that Christmas could be like it used to be before Krampus throws him into the fiery pit after his other family members.
The final scene in which everyone is somehow returned to the hearth on Christmas morning is open to much interpretation. The family seems to have learned to appreciate each other and rediscovered the Christmas spirit, but the darker presence of Krampus still looms over the scene via his apparently viewing it through one of his many snow globes. Not entirely a cut and dry story and up for much discussion, the two most prominent theories are that Krampus either uses the snow globe as some sort of crystal ball, and the family has been returned from the dead after redeeming themselves as per Max’s wish, or the family is truly dead and trapped in the snow globe for all eternity.
Critic and audience reviews have been mixed, with most coming in as middle-of-the-road, calling the movie overdone in many ways and drawing parallels to movies such as Gremlins and A Christmas Carol. In many ways, critics have said the movie tries too hard to be funny, horrifying, and warm and fuzzy, all at the same time. Described as borrowing creature elements from such as Gremlins, Christmas spirit morals from A Christmas Carol, and dysfunctional family elements from the likes of Home Alone and A Christmas Vacation, this Krampus retelling is seen as trying too hard to roll several themes and genres into one movie, with limited success.
This isn’t the first film adaptation of the German folklore, though. Recently, the story of Krampus has become more commercialized and mainstream, and this year alone can be seen in various film adaptations of the legend including Krampus: The Reckoning (streaming info) and A Christmas Horror Story (more info). All hold an entertainment value key to horror fans during the feel-good holiday season but in the end, Krampus, although considered entertaining, is unfortunately just another one of the pack. However, with the recently renewed interest in the creature from the folklore, it may yet have a place in the variety of darker Christmas cult classics for years to come.