Christmas is supposed to be a time of glad tidings and good cheer. Instead, greed, gluttony and grievances often rule the holiday season.
That’s certainly what it’s like in Max’s family. Oh, it wasn’t always that way. Max, who’s perhaps 10, recalls a time when the annual Christmas gathering of his extended family was something to anticipate.
Now? Not so much.
That’s because Max is just about the only one left in his family who has sheltered even a flickering flame of innocent Christmas joy and wonder. He loves the idea of writing his annual Christmas letter to Santa Claus (even though he knows the jolly old elf isn’t real). He longs for his bickering family to behave better, to appreciate one another, to stop backbiting.
His parents, Tom and Sarah, have given it a good go, but, frankly, they’re tired—of each other, of Christmas, of, well, everything. His older sister, Beth, is increasingly sinking into adolescent rebellion, mocking everything and plotting with her boyfriend to sneak out and hit a bong with him.
Then there’s Sarah’s sister’s family, who soon arrive from—as Beth snarkily quips—the “shallow end of the gene pool.” Howard drives a Hummer packed with guns and dresses his two tween daughters, twins Jordan and Stevie, as boys … because he never wanted girls. Meanwhile, chubby Howard Jr. rarely speaks, but loves to eat. Howard’s wife, Linda, tries in vain to keep the peace and takes care of their littlest family member, baby Christine.
This year Sarah’s invited Aunt Dorothy—a trash-talking, schnapps-drinking spinster—to join the family’s dysfunctional yuletide fray. Only Max’s gentle, German-speaking grandmother, Omi, is an ally of sorts as she quietly encourages Max to pen his letter to Santa once more this year.
And so he does.
But when his mean-spirited cousins (who have dubbed him “Maxipad”) pilfer the letter and read it at dinner, Max has had enough with their petty, Grinch-like attitudes. In a fit of frustration, he tears up his letter, tossing the fragments into the December night while wishing that his family would just go away.
As always, you should be careful what you wish for.
Max’s wish opens the door for something unexpected to come down the chimney that Christmas Eve. And let’s just say right up front that the uninvited goat-horned-and-hoofed entity named Krampus is much more interested in who’s been naughty than who’s been nice.
Or, as wise old grandma Omi puts it, “Krampus came not to reward, but to punish. Not to give, but to take.”
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Max’s letter to Santa isn’t full of the kinds of requests one might expect from your average tween. Instead, we hear that he’s wished for his parents to love each other again, for Howard and Linda’s struggling family to have more money to pay the bills, and for Uncle Howard to realize that his twin tomboys aren’t ever going to be the real boys he’s longed for.
In short, Max, more than anyone, realizes that his family is in bad shape. He wishes they could all learn to love and accept one another, despite their personality and ideological differences. And in the midst of a heated argument over a meal, Max’s father, Tom, affirms his son’s idealistic desires, saying, “That’s what family is: trying to be friends even though we don’t have much in common.”
As Krampus and his devilish helpers invade Max’s home, everyone has moments of realization about how petty they’ve been, how they’ve failed to love well and be thankful. Multiple family members put their lives at risk to try to save others from being picked off by Krampus and his henchminions. One of Howard’s family mottos, which Tom adopts, is, “A shepherd’s gotta protect his flock.” And so they try to do just that.
Krampus derives its “inspiration” from a Germanic alpine legend which posits Krampus as a goat-like entity that comes at Christmastime to punish children who were bad—something of a darker, shadowy counterpart to St. Nicholas. Krampus builds on that conception of this pseudo-mythological being, imagining him as an enormous, seriously creepy goat-man of sorts, who, along with twisted toys, evil-eyed stuffed animals, wicked gingerbread cookies and dark elves, wreaks havoc upon Max’s family.
Though these beings seek to maim, wound and devour, there is still—unexpectedly—an observable and coherent spiritual worldview in play here. Specifically it’s stated that Krampus only shows up when people have lost all vestiges of the true “Christmas spirit.” Omi tells the family that Krampus took everyone in her family in post-World War II Germany except her. “He left me as a reminder of what happens when hope is lost, when belief is forgotten, and when the Christmas spirit dies.”
So while Krampus isn’t big on mentioning Jesus (outside of taking His name in vain, that is), or the true spiritual ideas of sin and redemption, we’re told that everyone has committed misdeeds that deserve judgment, and that only the sacrifice of someone who is “good” can mitigate that deserved judgment. That sets the stage for this: As Krampus drops Max’s family one by one into a hellish, fiery hole that’s elsewhere referred to as the underworld, Max pleads with the being to take him instead. The boy’s willingness to sacrifice himself, paired with the fact that he still possesses vestiges of Christmas “belief” (not in Jesus, but in the possibility that things can be better again), seems to finally set things straight again.
A magical bell then serves as a moralistic reminder of what’s transpired, a warning that they need to keep putting others’ needs ahead of their own if they hope to avoid a second visit from the goat-horned anti-Claus. Omi, too, emphasizes first to Max, and later to the entire family, the importance of clinging to the true Christmas spirit. She defines that as becoming people who are willing to give, to sacrifice and to keep on believing (though, again, the object of that belief isn’t explored). The true meaning of Christmas, she says, is to focus on others’ needs, not our own selfish desires.
We do hear some Christ-focused Christmas carols. And Howard says, “Jesus was born in a barn.” A Rankin/Bass Claymation special includes a scene telling the Christmas story.
There’s talk of sex-triggered shotgun weddings. Dorothy tells someone, “Life is coming at you with its pants down” and jokes about squirrels “playing with their nuts.”
A montage of greed-propelled shoppers shows them fighting, hitting, Tazing and generally assaulting one another. Max (dressed as Rudolf) gets into a fight during a play. Another fight ensues with his cousins when they steal his letter to Santa. (Max bites one of his persecutors.)
Krampus employs Christmas toys, as well as goblin-y elves, to help do his violent bidding. People battle huge, bloody-teethed “angels,” bears and clowns who try to devour them (and do successfully eat a child). A baby is kidnapped. Howard’s leg is mauled (and we see blood seep through his clothing). Gingerbread cookies assault him with a nail gun, with several metal missiles sinking into his flesh. Howard Jr. is pulled up a chimney. Other people are yanked into holes in the snow. Someone is hanged by Christmas lights (then cut down). Another person is repeatedly stabbed by a crazed robot.
The humans fight back with Howard’s pistol and shotgun, bloodily obliterating creatures that, not surprisingly, refuse to stay “dead.” We see Krampus drop two screaming children into a fiery pit. And it’s implied that Krampus is attacking not just Max’s house, but the entire town, as we see him pouncing on rooftop after rooftop.
Two f-words and an interrupted use of “m—–f—.” Ten or so s-words. God’s name is misused a dozen times, twice paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused four or five times. We also hear “h—, ” “a–,” “a–hole,” “b–ch,” “b–tard” and “d–k.”
Beth’s boyfriend holds a Christmas-themed bong and invites her to join him. Aunt Dorothy isn’t shy about her penchant for drinking, mingling peppermint schnapps with hot chocolate … and offering to serve the same to the three tweens. She later jokes about having a bad hangover. References are made to beer. Sarah reportedly takes Xanax.
Sarah says her sister’s family is proof that people should have to have “a test before breeding.” We hear crude references to vomit, excrement, hemorrhoids and feminine hygiene products.
Nearly 15 years ago now, Christian film director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still) published an article in Christian Century about why he was attracted to horror movies. He said, “My work in the horror genre has made me controversial among Christians. But as a Christian, I defend horror films. No other genre offers audiences a more spiritual view of the world, and no other genre communicates a more dearly defined moral perspective. … More than any other genre, horror clearly communicates the distinction between good and evil.”
That quote has stayed with me for a long time, and I frequently think about it when I see horror movies. In the abstract, I get what Derrickson is saying. But here’s a harsh reality: the vast majority of horror movies I’ve reviewed in the last decade don’t deal with the battle between good and evil in any sort of profitable way. Much more often they just indulge in gore for gore’s sake or proffer a hopeless, nihilistic worldview in which evil wins and all the good guys die.
Which brings me to the seriously curious case of Krampus.
I expected this “comedic” horror-lite bit of jetsam (which many are rightly comparing to 1985’s Gremlins) to major in gore and nihilism. Surprisingly, it does neither. Oh, there’s a lot of violence here, to be sure, and some wickedly creepy imagery, the kind that could easily keep youngsters awake at night for decades.
Still, Krampus is exactly the kind of movie I think Derrickson was talking about. Namely, one that deals seriously (amid its campy goofiness) with spiritual issues. Though we never hear the word sin, the film strongly shows that we’re all guilty of it, and that we’re all deserving of judgment. Those are biblical themes … even if this is hardly a biblical movie.
Parallel to those themes is the idea that there’s no deliverance from said judgment without belief. In this case, it’s not in Jesus, but in the vague-yet-earnest concept of the “spirit of Christmas,” which involves selflessness and sacrifice. In the end, only Max’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of others saves them all. But given the fact that he’s really the only “good” character in the film (aside from, perhaps, Omi), it’s hard not to see him as a Christ figure of sorts.
So does all that mean you rush out to soak up the spiritual lessons Krampus hints at? Um. Not really. I’m quite sure the spiritual ideas buried in this unsettling movie can be unearthed more easily in ways that don’t involve a goat demon gleefully dropping children into a fiery afterlife—you know, just for fun.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.