Look, I do not like horror movies. Of all the emotions I like to artificially stimulate, “fear” is my least favorite, which is why I’m still surprised I enjoyed Krampus. I suppose a lot has to do with it being “fun” horror and not “jump scare” horror. There have been a lot of comparisons to Gremlins already and I can go along with them to a point – Krampus has the same kind of vibe.
Oh, Gremlins: culture’s favorite Christmas-themed (even though it was released in June) quasi-horror movie. It’s famously one of the last “intense” PG movies, and reaction to it contributed to the creation of the PG-13 rating. (This was an era when Star Trek: The Motion Picture was rated “G.”) What’s nice about both Gremlins and Krampus is, even without the horror, they both have a nice holiday feel. The characters work well enough that, if you were to take the supernatural elements out of the film, I could still watch a movie about these people.
Here’s the plot: Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are hosting family holiday festivities at their home, which includes Sarah’s sister, Linda (Allison Tolman), and her husband, Howard (David Koechner, basically playing a much more reasonable Cousin Eddie from the Vacation movies; it would basically be like if Eddie had maybe gone to junior college for a couple of years). Yes, Howard is a slob. He’s the rude, crude, “real man’s man” stereotype that we come to expect at this point, but Koechner is just so darn likable (whammy!) that it works. Again, I could have just watched all of these people bicker for 98 minutes and I would have been fine with that.
Then Krampus shows up. Krampus, we are told, shows up every Christmas to punish bad people. After an unexpected blizzard falls on an already deserted neighborhood — it seems everyone else has left to go on vacation … or maybe they just knew Krampus was coming — we find our lot of characters snowed-in and trapped.
The first time I saw Krampus in this movie, I was kind of terrified. Let me explain: For whatever reason, a lot of horror movies like to overindulge in making whatever evil ghoul is terrorizing people look larger than life. Lots of close-ups, often with the camera shooting up at the villain to make it look even more menacing. What gets me is when we see the creature off in the distance, with a real sense of scale. And when we first see Krampus — with his scary hoof feet — he’s hopping from rooftop to rooftop off in the distance. It’s those kind of shots that frighten me the most — the shots that almost seem like it’s business as usual, except for this one terrible thing.
Another thing I love is when people who hate each other start to like each other – when a truce is called between archrivals in order to take on an even more dangerous foe. Tom and Howard start to become friends when Krampus starts terrorizing their families, and Scott and Koechner have a nice chemistry. And another bonus: Most of the effects for the evil ghouls are real. (Or, as the “in the know” crowd says these days, “practical.”) Some look a lot better than others, but darn it if there’s not something fun about seeing a person in a costume.
Krampus is one of those movies that didn’t have to be near as good as it turned out. The fact that I like it might mean it won’t appease people looking for “true horror,” but it does work if you’re looking for “a horror movie that would have been rated PG in 1984.”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.