Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) has ruined Christmas. Well, not really, but he was involved in a fight with another boy in the local shopping mall where he was supposed to be taking part in the annual Nativity play, though to be honest hardly anyone noticed when there was a near riot in the place from the shoppers trying to snap up last minute bargains. His mother Sarah (Toni Collette) takes he and his teenage sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) back home with his tail between his legs, but he's just glad to be out of there and back with his grandmother Omi (Krista Sadler) who implores him subtly to write that letter to Santa Claus, no matter that he's probably getting too old for that kind of thing. But there's still time for him to ruin Christmas properly - and terrifyingly.
Okay, this didn't quite get to those levels of fright, but director Michael Dougherty's second horror movie after the similarly holiday-themed Trick 'r' Treat from almost ten years before did pick up a small following of those who appreciated what a lovingly-crafted item it was, one of the best-looking Christmas horror movies around, even one of the best-looking Christmas movies around. The set design was tip-top with festive cosiness just waiting to be subverted, and it kicked off a minor run of Krampus chillers far less accomplished than this one, although it was not the first as the Dutch film Saint from about five years previous had a not-dissimilar take on the season, and the Saint Nicolas character in particular.
Krampus was a curious phenomenon, a spirit of mischief who appeared on that saint's holiday who was inspired by various superstitions of winter and came together around the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth where he was given a name and a set of celebrations in Central Europe were instigated. Not that the purists would be keen on this American take on the relatively recently coined tradition, as it basically rendered that genuinely strange folklore into a more straightforward monster movie, though it did get one thing right: those old tales and practices did involve an awful lot of grim violence and acknowledgement of the nearness of death to the living, so perhaps this was not as much a bastardisation as the naysayers thought.
What happens to invoke this spirit is that Max does indeed write that letter to Santa Claus, but when the rest of his family arrives for what promises to be an annual ordeal of clashing cultures and expectations of what they want out of the season - essentially the relatives are awful and exacerbate the tensions between his parents (comic actor Adam Scott played Tom, his father, though this wasn't an out and out comedy) - Max rips up the letter and throws the scraps out of the window in frustration and disgust. But if those pieces don't reach Santa, they do reach someone, or something, which sees the discord and means to teach them all a lesson, though not a particularly gory one as the studio would only produce this if it held back on the bloodletting, probably antsy about the reception Silent Night Deadly Night received.
That was back in the nineteen-eighties, when pop culture moral panics really began to fire up the popular imagination, so when Krampus was released there was a distinct lack of picketing abolitionists demanding the respect of the holy occasion be respected. After all, there was a long tradition, going back centuries or possibly millennia, of gathering the folks around to tell scary stories at Christmas, and the Dickensian crystallisation of that was continued with some vigour once entertainment of the moving image arrived in the world. That sense of tradition was alive and well here, both cinematic and folkloric, though it should be pointed out that the actual night of Krampus was on the 5th of December, same as St. Nicolas's day, and not the 25th as depicted here. Nevertheless, there was spooky and freaky fun here for young and old (maybe not the very young), as the gleaming imagery transported the characters to a nightmare Christmas world more or less from a different era; imagine National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation as a horror movie and you'd have some idea of what this was: better, much better. Rather fine, darkly festive soundtrack by Douglas Pipes.