Opening up with Bing Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" played over shots of stampeding customers fighting for bargains in a store, it's pretty obvious from the get go that Krampus isn't going to be quite like any Christmas film you've seen before. An entertaining mix of the "family regains their long-lost festive spirit" Christmas film and a pre-teen friendly horror, Krampus follows a fairly normal family over the Christmas period as they are terrorised by Krampus, the dark side of the Santa Claus story who punishes those without a festive spirit.
If that sounds like the general plot to dozens of low budget, straight-to-DVD horror films, that's because it is - but Krampus certainly doesn't deserve the association. It's the kind of film that you don't really see getting made any more, a pre-teen friendly horror that genuinely tries to scare its target audience, and it's surprisingly effective - creepy and frightening without relying on gore, Krampus is the kind of film that would have scared the bejesus out of me as a kid while still being suitable for anyone over the age of about 10.
Even you're too old to find it scary, there is still a lot of fun to be found within Krampus. A lot of people have compared it to Gremlins thanks to the way that it mixed horror with the natural comedy of the situation, and although that's a fair comparison my main point of reference has been The Cabin in the Woods - both are imbued with a sense of playfulness and self-awareness that never veers into cheesiness or self-parody, the only comedy coming from the natural absurdity of the situation rather than one-liners and jokes. It's a careful balancing act, but one that Krampus consistently succeeds at.
The design of the monsters found within are both horrific and exciting, the
kind of thing that is understandably freaking out the characters in the
film and any kids watching while at the same time making the adult portion of the audience grin with delight. Yes, the giant Jack-in-the-Box is utterly disgusting and creepy
and straight out of a particularly disturbing nightmare, but it's also
an inherently fun idea for a monster, and it is in this combination of
emotions that Krampus is at it's best - a combination demonstrated perfectly in the "shit just hit the fan" finale, which helps elevate Krampus from a well-made horror film that simply isn't aimed at me to something I can see myself rewatching with friends each year.
It's also worth mentioning how much you like these characters by the end of the film - they feel like real people, partly down to some good writing but mostly because of how well cast each character is. Most are just playing somewhat toned down versions of their usual personas and fit right in (for example, Adam Scott as the everyman or David Koechner as the redneck), but it is child actor Emjay Anthony who really deserves recognition here. I first saw him in last years Chef and thought that he was quite good, but the way he manages to almost single-handedly sell the conclusion of the film to us is something else entirely, especially for someone so young in a film so outlandish. He seems to be a good actor, and not just "good for a child", so it'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.
My only problem with Krampus comes from the 15 age rating that it has received in the UK thanks to the infinite wisdom of the BBFC. I don't think anything in Krampus is graphic enough to take it above the 12A rating that it is so clearly aiming for, and in slapping it with a 15 age rating the BBFC have stopped the people who would get the most out of the film from seeing it, as well as undermining the reason for it being a bit tamer than it otherwise might have been. Is this the films fault? Not at all, but it does make me wonder what Krampus might have been like if the film makers had known that they weren't going to get the age rating they wanted.
But there are barely any horror films that are aimed at the audience that Krampus is trying to attract, so it's hard to feel too disappointed that this one in particular doesn't pander to me. Krampus ends up being nothing less than a really well done version of what it is trying to be, a testament to the skills of director Michael Dougherty whose début film Trick 'r Treat is now firmly on my list of things to watch. It's fun and imaginative and creepy and exciting and it will scare the living daylights out of those of a certain age - and what more can you ask for from a Christmas-themed, pre-teen friendly horror film?