Among these is the centuries-old German legend of Krampus, an anti-Santa demon that punishes naughty children at Christmas. His name comes from the German word krampen, meaning claw.
This month saw the release of “Krampus,” a holiday horror flick based on the myth. The PG-13 film is directed by Michael Dougherty, who also made the Halloween anthology “Trick ‘R Treat.” Here, Dougherty takes on Christmas with stars Adam Scott (“Parks & Recreation”), Toni Collette (“The United States of Tara”), David Koechner (“Anchorman”), and Emjay Anthony as Max, the young boy who mistakenly summons Krampus.
The summoning begins with a blizzard and a growing stable of “Calvin and Hobbes” nightmare snowmen. But before that, we get an actual Christmas movie. Dougherty allows viewers to invest in characters who are fleshed out enough to not be stock but not as outlandish as, say, Chevy Chase’s Griswold clan. Even Koechner’s gun-toting, Hummer-driving redneck uncle character never goes over the top which makes his sentimental moments that much more believable.
Dougherty, to his credit, never gives us a full look at Krampus although what we see is delightfully creepy. The scariest trait isn’t the horns or heavy chains but what appears to be a Leatherface-like skinned Santa face over the real face of Krampus. This is the film’s most terrifying visual, but isn’t so awful as to force one to look away. It keeps with the rest of the monstrous helpers employed by Krampus. They are creepy — there is a teddy bear that might cause some nightmares — but not completely grotesque.
“Krampus” would fit well with a Tim Burton marathon and some viewers might not know any better, unless you tell them, that it’s not a Burton film. This exists in a “Twilight Zone” in that the story’s beats and tropes are exactly what you would expect from any other Christmas film, good or bad, but the horror element pushes the disillusioned family toward its own Christmas miracle.
Imagine “Gremlins” invading “Christmas Vacation” and you’ll have “Krampus.”
If that only whets your desire for more ghastly holiday fare, here are a few more scary stories for your cold holiday nights…
“Black Christmas” (1974, R). Bob Clark is most famous for giving the world “A Christmas Story,” the unavoidable story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun. A decade prior, however, Clark made “Black Christmas,” the story of a few sorority house sisters who stayed home over the Christmas break only to meet their demise at the hands of a serial killer. Released four years before “Halloween,” this is the real start of holiday-themed horror films. Starring Olivia Hussey (“Romeo & Juliet,” 1968) and Margot Kidder (“Superman,” 1978), the film features a number of stylish death scenes, including one poor young woman suffocated with a plastic bag and left in front of a window … for the entire movie without anyone noticing. Skip the 2006 remake.
“Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984, R). By the mid-1980s, slashers such as Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger had taken over the horror genre. Parents’ organizations and film critics bemoaned the existence of such films. And then came “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” in which a teenager dresses as Santa Claus and goes on a murder-spree. Naturally, a number of parents’ organizations protested the film, saying that the depictions of an axe-wielding Santa in advertisements would scare younger children. They probably had a good point about that but because of the fervor the film made back its entire budget and more in two weeks.
“Scrooged,” (1988, PG-13). Bill Murray stars as TV exec Frank Cross who has a Dickensian experience of his own while attempting to produce a live broadcast of “A Christmas Carol.” The movie serves as a case study of the1980s obsession with greed and television. Murray is Murray in that he’s hilarious and we end up hating him for most of the 101-minute running time. The TV obsession is highlighted by the ghost of Christmas future who has a TV screen for a face and a rib cage full of tortured souls. It’s a Freddy Krueger nightmare image, to say the least.
“Saint” (2010, Not rated). “Saint” is a Dutch film featuring Saint Nicholas as a murderous bishop who comes to collect naughty children on December 5, if there is a full moon. (December 4 and 5 are the most commonly attributed nights for Krampusnacht, the night night Krampus gathers naughty children.) “Saint” is bloody and gruesome, for those looking for something beyond the general mayhem offered by other films. The ‘70s and ‘80s films have their scares but are light on gore compared to films from this century
“Gremlins” (1984, PG). Gizmo the Mogwai joins a new family as a Christmas present but things soon go wrong as his new owners fail to adhere to three simple rules: do not get him wet; do not feed him after midnight; and avoid bright lights. This Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed film is full of goofy mayhem and destruction. The gremlins are scary, serving as the counterpoint to the cute and adorable Gizmo. Much like “Scrooged,” “Gremlins” is a total ‘80s movie. Fun facts: this is one of the films credited for the creation of the PG-13 rating, and Howie Mandel performed the voice of Gizmo.
Tranchell is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Idaho and advisor for student media, including the Argonaut. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tranchell’s writings on the horror genre can be found online at: www.warning-signs.net.