On December 4, Krampus will sink its giant hooves into a long history of Christmas-themed horror movies. Its cast of dry comedy veterans, including Toni Collette and Adam Scott, suggests the film will be less campy than its Black Christmas predecessor, but perhaps less dark than 2010’s Finnish holiday-nightmare Rare Exports. Though creepy Christmas tales are not new, a film adaptation of the centuries-old myth of Santa’s scary partner hasn’t yet been attempted by a major studio.
It’s a tragedy that the Krampus monster has waited this long to be immortalized on film, especially considering just how many Christmas horror movies have been produced in the last few decades. In fact, “the shadow of St. Nicolas” is a lot like David Koechner, who stars in this year’s Krampus. You’re vaguely aware of his presence in things, but you probably wouldn’t be able to recall his name unless you’re already a huge fan.
1974’s Black Christmas birthed the creepy-Christmas genre. The original film feels like a direct assault on holiday cheer, and its primary objective is to disturb viewers, rather than tickle them. Compare Krampus’ tag-lines, all of which play on the concept of Santa watching you and knowing whether you’re awake, to the tag-line used to sell Black Christmas:
“If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on too tight.”
Black Christmas is a slasher film which happened to be set during the holidays, rather than a play on both the horror and holiday-film aesthetic. Krampus, it appears, will be the latter. The film’s trailer begins as a typical December-release film about a sniping, unhappy family gathering for the holidays before descending into madness.
Combining Christmas’ jolly aesthetic with horror imagery began to fascinate filmmakers after the release of Black Christmas. A whole slew of films featuring killers in Santa costumes followed, including 1980’s To All a Good Night and You Better Watch Out, Silent Night, Deadly Night parts 1 and 2, 1996’s Satan Claus and Santa Claws, 2005’s Santa’s Slay, 2010’s Yule Die and 2012’s Silent Night. (Noticeably, film studios got increasingly better at coming up with scary Christmas puns as the years went on.)
But what was the utility of creating a killer Santa when the mythology for a darker wintry legend has always existed? It’s easy to imagine how an axe-murderer in a red and white suit seemed more attractive to low-budget filmmakers, but a B-movie starring Krampus, sporting his huge horns and dragging a child-stealing basket behind him, could have been campy horror gold.
Krampus is absolutely ripe with terrifying details; his sole purpose is to transport the naughty children who don’t deserve gifts from Santa into the bowels of hell. Hilariously, Dutch kids believe Krampus takes them to Spain. Less hilariously, Krampus is sometimes confused with Santa’s other European lackey, Black Peter, who is actually depicted in parades by white dudes wearing black face. The difference between Black Peter and Krampus is this: Pete actually gives children gifts, as he is St. Nicholas’ unpaid physical laborer — you see the problem, yes? — and Krampus doles out the punishment that St. Nicholas doesn’t want to dirty his white gloves with. In short, Krampus has been a long time coming, and it has a built-in European audience already familiar with the monster.
Will Krampus translate easily to American audiences? The success of campy, gory Christmas films like Gremlins suggests the film might do well, but the fact that 2010’s Rare Exports, a unique masterwork in the genre, bypassed mainstream American audiences is foreboding. Then again, Rare Exports didn’t star American comedians, and the plot revealed a dark “truth” about Santa Claus, that the father of Christmas is both real and monstrous. Krampus doesn’t deface jolly old Saint Nick so much as present his mirror-image partner.
So far, press photos and the trailer promise a huge cinematic Krampus who lumbers around on two hooves and monstrous horns, thick metal chains trailing behind it. It remains to be seen whether the film’s monster will feature the serpentine tongue depicted in folk-tale illustrations of Krampus. Personally, I’m hoping he will.
Those interested in the mythical Krampus can check out his personal website, Krampus.com, or watch the following scene from The Venture Bros. Christmas Special: