Christmas-themed horror movies have a really poor track record; except for Gremlins, I can’t think of anything that could even remotely be considered good. Well, until now at least. I’ve already gotten into a few debates about this particular film with other folks, so please understand your mileage may vary. But for me, last year’s “Krampus” — which I only now got around to seeing — blends horror, comedy, and Christmas spirit perfectly. It delivers a cautionary tale that’s endearing and relatable, deeply silly, and actually kind of chilling all at once. The story turns out to be a meditation on what Christmas — and every winter holiday before it — is meant to be for the people who celebrate it, and the horrors that befall us if we forget it.
Tom (Adam Scott) is the patriarch of a typical American family preparing for the chaos of Christmas. Sarah (Toni Collette) is his wife trying to make the perfect holiday; his mother is an old-school German-speaking home-maker, while his daughter Beth is more interested in her boyfriend than her family. Adding to the stress, Sarah’s sister Alison is visiting for the holidays — with her obnoxious alpha-male husband (David Koechner) and four children in tow. To top it off, Sarah’s aunt Dorothy crashes the party to add her particular brand of cynicism, chain-smoking and binge drinking.
Only Tom’s son Max still believes in the Christmas spirit. That changes when his cousins embarrass him at the family dinner table by reading his letter to Santa out loud, exposing true and tender feelings about secrets that might be better left unrevealed. Hurt and angry, Max rips up the letter and tosses it into the wind, inadvertently summoning the shadow of Saint Nicholas. A supernatural blizzard cuts off power to the entire town, and that’s when the bloodletting begins.
Krampus tries to blend a kind of existential horror with demonic set-pieces that feel designed to be crazy enough to force a laugh, and how well it succeeds depends on your tolerance for tonal whiplash. I found it best to just buy into the film’s big request for a suspension of disbelief; once I did, I discovered that there was something surprisingly thoughtful lurking beneath the silliness.
Beth goes first, heading out into the storm to visit her boyfriend. She finds his home open to the elements, unnaturally frozen and everyone missing. On the way back, she’s chased by a horned figure jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she hides under a truck. Just when she thinks she’s escaped, another monster attacks her from the bushes. Tom and his brother in law are attacked as they go looking for him, and the family barricades themselves in the house. This, of course, doesn’t work — one by one, they’re isolated and abducted. As their numbers dwindle, their relationship to one another changes. Instead of focusing on what they hate about one another, they cling to each other a little tighter. Each terrible, strange disappearance forces them to band together that much more desperately.
This is where the movie starts to feel like it actually has something on its mind. Omi, the German grandmother, tells the story of how the poverty of her village made her lose her Christmas spirit when she was a young girl. Krampus visited, took everyone, and left her alone to serve as a witness. Now that Max and his family realize what is happening, they do their best to escape together; Omi stays behind to confront the demon, and that leads to a series of sacrifices. Tom gives his life to save his family, then Sarah gives hers to save her children. Eventually, Max tries to give up his life to save his cousin.
I might be overthinking this, or it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, but it was fascinating to watch these people realize the importance of unity against an often harsh and unforgiving world. As the home becomes increasingly unsafe and the family is driven into the bitter cold, I’m reminded of people learning to band together in ancient times for warmth and shared resources through the dark chill of winter. The festivity and merrymaking isn’t just because there was nothing else to do; these holidays are meant to deepen the bonds of community and remind us of the importance of our relationships. Gifts aren’t the meaning of Christmas; they only represent it. We give each other offerings to show our loved ones what they mean to us.
The consequences of forgetting how to be part of a community are often invisible and can easily go unnoticed. And by the time we realize that something has gone dreadfully wrong it’s too late. Max’s family struggle against a world that has suddenly turned against them in the worst way, and they display tenacity, ingenuity and bravery in the fight — but it does nothing to stop all of them from dying. Max begs and pleads with the demon to reverse what’s happened; he apologies, he promises to remember his lesson, he even gives Krampus back the coal bell he received as a token of his ordeal. Then he is thrown into a pit, and wake up in his bed.
Downstairs, his family is enjoying Christmas morning. For all of their flaws, they share a common bond that fills the room with warmth. Then, Max opens his gift — Krampus’ coal bell. A chill quiets the room, and everyone looks away from each other as they remember the horrors they’ve experienced.
That image is a chilling one. Instead of reaching for each other to share and relieve their suffering, they retreat into themselves. It strikes me as a particularly nasty version of hell; taking a moment that should connect us and trapping us within it with people who simply cannot do so. Being alone in that room full of people is an exceptionally lonely feeling.
So, this Christmas, I’ll make it a point to be more open about the things that frighten or depress me — and I encourage you to do the same. It’s more important than ever to bring ourselves together, to hold on to one another before it’s too late. We haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but I worry that it’s so close. We have to learn how to band together; we may have our differences, and we might disagree, but what happens if we don’t is terrifying and irreversible.
Hell is a banquet table where everyone has no option but to use forks that are too long to feed ourselves. Heaven is what happens when we decide to feed each other instead.