In the mid-2010s, there was a waning of Christmas affect, a widespread sense, at least in cinema, that the holiday releases of the past were no longer tenable. The most depressing film to emerge from this moment was Love the Coopers, a hollowed-out ghost of the comfort films of Christmas past, but the most anarchic was Krampus, a gleefully anti-Christmas film. Directed by Michael Dougherty, it starts with a credit sequence that unfolds against one holiday trope and tableau after another, all of which descend into slo-mo squalor and violence. The holidays here feel a bit like the Purge, a ritual unleashing of atavistic violence in which children and parents “under the influence” of fudge and candy canes wreak havoc on malls, streets, homes and even Santa Claus himself. The last step in this descent into chaos is not having time to watch Charlie Brown, the final bastion of what Lauren Berlant might have called the cruel optimism of Christmas – namely, the unshakeable belief, year in year out, that things can get better, and the good life can be attained, simply because the holidays are here.
All of this takes places against the so-called War on Christmas, which prompts two responses that together comprise the first act of the film. The first of these responses comes from the Engels, a middle-class family who are desperately trying to preserve the charm of the season, but without quite succeeding, resulting in a sly parody of bourgeois Christmas etiquette. Sarah, played by Toni Collette, feels compelled to repeat the same stock phrases over and over again to maintain the feelgood mood (“It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas”) while Tom, played by Adam Scott, is immediately emasculated by the arrival of his in-laws, a family of gun-toting, football-loving, meat-eating, red-blooded, working-class Americans headed by Howard, played by David Koechner, and Linda, played by Allison Tolman. Whereas the Engels like a tasteful approach to Christmas, this other side of the family have too much of an appetite for the holiday season – they’re too brash, too crude, too fat, too loud and too enthusiastic in their enjoyment. No sooner have they arrived than one of their children chugs soft drink directly from the bottle and lets out an almighty belch, as Howard bursts into laughter: “That’s my boy!” Not only does the sheer chaos of these in-laws continue the atavism of the opening scenes, but they explicitly call out the Engels’ attempts to rein it into bourgeois tact, noting their dining room “looks like Martha Stewart threw up everywhere.”
Krampus, the mythical doppelganger of Santa, both personifies this atavism of the Christmas season, and emerges from this fissure in the Engels family, which their grandmother traces back to the 1950s, when she dealt with the trauma of post-war immigration by wishing that Santa would disappear, since he didn’t seem capable of bestowing any gifts upon her family. The arrival of Krampus coincided with the blind spots in Eisenhower-era America, the people who weren’t given an idealised suburban tract for Christmas, much as his reappearance coincides with a later point in that decline narrative, a moment in time when the holiday era has become the last residual echo of the good life that seemed so tantalisingly close at mid-century. In Dougherty’s film, the final catalyst comes when Max, Tom and Sarah’s son, played by Emjay Anthony, responds to the rupture between the two sides of his family by tearing up his note to Santa, rejecting the institutions of both Christmas and family in one violent gesture. For Max saying he doesn’t believe in Christmas is like saying he doesn’t believe in family, or in the suburban dream, in the same way Kevin McAllister’s rejection of his family in Home Alone was also a rejection of Christmas as a suburban institution. As a result, Krampus often plays as a modern rendition of Home Alone, and quotes the blackout scene shot for shot, the moment when Kevin’s fantasy comes true, as Max’s fantasy comes alive here too.
In Home Alone, John Hughes and Chris Columbus restored family, suburbia, and Christmas through a seamless amalgamation of 80s genres, but a quarter of a century down the track, and with the fantasy of the holiday season more precarious than ever, Krampus opts for a more dissonant and atonal approach to genre. To some extent, Dougherty plays the early scenes as straight horror, not unlike the South Bend Shovel Slayer subplot, and its echo of the slasher 80s, in Home Alone. These scenes tend to be most resonant when they take typical Christmas iconography and turn it subtly awry, whether in the recurring shots of a half-melted Santa candle, the misshapen snowmen that start proliferating outside, or the gingerbread man that the Engels find pinned to a neighbours’ fridge with a steak knife. All these images imbue the holiday season with an eerie fluidity, as if the spectacles of Christmas are melting before our eyes, culminating with Krampus dangling a live gingerbread man down the chimney while the Engels are sleeping. This more traditional suspense is enhanced by the eerie light of the blizzard that ushers in Krampus’ presence, and which soon becomes denser and more obscure than the night outside, meaning even the Christmas ornaments that do remain intact are relegated to a murky distance that takes the edge off their feel good charm.
However, Dougherty soon moves away from classical suspense, which he signals by choosing to show Krampus relatively early on, leaping from roof to roof, and then tearing beneath the snow like the worms from Tremors. From here, the film takes on more of a creature feature vibe, while Krampus becomes less a source of terror than a personification of the more perverse elements of the holiday season – a trickster figure who takes pleasure in taunting and teasing the Engels, with a whole army of mischief makers at his beck and call. For Krampus soon spawns a series of horrifically mutated toys, each of these a homage to a different 80s horror film, from Gremlins to Critters, whether it’s a gingerbread man man with nail guns, an owl-doll hybrid, a Santa-worm that swallows people whole, or a razor-toothed teddy bear. In other words, Krampus invests Christmas presents with the same chaotic energy that people try to expend in buying them, as we saw during the credit sequence. Rather than containing the Christmas chaos, the act of gift-giving only amplifies it, while hastening the genre devolution of the film, as the army of maleficent toys shifts us from horror to comedy to a fantasy mode that peaks when an entire army of elves descends upon the Engels household.
In these closing moments, Krampus becomes a full-on fairytale, as the entire family are taken by Krampus, except for Max, whose only solution is to believe in the holiday season, against all the odds. In his final confrontation with Krampus, Max demands his family back, including his hick relatives, and offers himself in place of his family, so strong is his belief in Christmas now. Yet it turns out that belief is not enough anymore, since while we shift back to the Engels sitting around the Christmas tree, opening their presents against a snowy backdrop, their body language is a little too stilted, and the dialogue a little too trite, for this to be plausible as any kind of return to reality. Sure enough, Dougherty zooms out to show that the Engels are now trapped in one of the many snowglobes that dot Krampus’ house, condemned to live the same Christmas tropes over and over again for his nefarious pleasure. It’s a chilling vision of the Christmas season as a series of gestures that are compulsively repeated for a malign agency that eludes our conscious attention – a poetic ending for a film that aims for nothing less than to escape the Christmas genre from inside, if only to show us that it is impossible.