A Christmas Horror Story is the odd kind of movie you can catch in the middle of the night during a Christmas-themed horror marathon—and somehow find yourself riveted, mostly because of the way the Canadian import manages to be legitimately frightening despite its cheesiness. Also, because who doesn’t like watching William Shatner playing an alcoholic?
The 2015 Copperheart Entertainment-produced anthology film tells the stories of four groups of people who all find themselves confronted by wintery horrors just in time for Christmas Eve. (Shatner, playing a boozy radio DJ, anchors the frame story.) Up at the North Pole, Santa Claus’ workshop is overrun by his elves, who’ve become rabid, bloodthirsty killers. Elsewhere, a distraught mother discovers that her young son has been replaced by a murderous changeling while they were out cutting down a Christmas tree. And a group of curious teens break into their high school during winter break, only to learn that it’s being haunted by a vengeful ghost whose greatest wish is to have a baby.
Bonkers as those plots all sound, they do have their moments of proper horror that make them watch-worthy, but it’s A Christmas Horror Story’s take on Krampus that really stands head and shoulders above the rest. Krampus, for those unfamiliar with him, is a demonic entity hailing from European folklore who is closely tied to Santa Claus and Christmas. Much in the same way that Santa rewards children with gifts for their good behavior, Krampus acts as a kind of foil who targets mischievous children and punishes them for their misdeeds. In place of Santa’s jingling bells and jolly demeanor, Krampus jangles heavy chains, and his menacing, inhuman visage is more or less meant to be a warning to any young people who might think about disobeying their parents.
If Santa’s thing is joy, then Krampus’ is absolute terror, which is evidenced by his traditional half-goat, half-devil appearance. A Christmas Horror Story gets a lot of things right about Krampus, but one area that it really takes a sharp left turn is the way that it inadvertently makes him out to be kind of a sex symbol. Though it does take a while to see him in all his glory.
The Krampus plot focuses on the Bauer family who, like so many others during the holiday season, are stressed to hell with one another and making their way to visit distant relatives they don’t care all that much for. Though Diane (Michelle Nolden) wanted to take the family on a tropical vacation, her husband Taylor (Jeff Clark) insists that they drive out to visit his wealthy, elderly aunt Etta (Corrine Conley) in the hopes that he can convince her to invest in his new business project. The kids, Caprice (Amy Forsyth) and Duncan (The Gifted’s Percy Hynes White), couldn’t care less about spending time with their family, but they’re the ones who first begin to hint at the danger they’re all about to be thrust into.
Despite Taylor’s insistence that she would be thrilled to see them, Etta’s none too pleased to see her relatives arrive at her palatial estate unannounced, and when Duncan purposefully breaks a Krampus ornament to spite Etta’s manservant Gerhardt (Julian Richings), they’re quickly kicked out and sent home. Duncan’s strange knowledge of who and what Krampus is hints that there’s a darkness in the boy that his parents have never been able to see. But just as the film begins to hint that he may be the monster, the family witnesses a demonic figure bounding across the road, causing them to spin out and crash into a snow drift.
Stranded, the Bauers decide that it’s in their best interest to trudge through the forest on foot in order to make it back to Etta’s for shelter. But of course, this proves to be the worst possible decision, as Krampus finally begins to take them out one by one beginning with Taylor, who he shoots with an arrow through the stomach, and Duncan, who he drags off into the forest.
Two things make the Bauers’ earliest death scenes so effective, the first being that you never really get a good look at what’s hunting them, giving the story an interesting Predator vibe.
The second is that A Christmas Horror Story juxtaposes the violence with moments of genuine emotional connection between the family, where you can really see that, frosty as they are, they do fundamentally care about one another—and if they’d taken a moment to actually admit that before leaving the house, they likely wouldn’t be in their current predicament. With Duncan lost to the demon, Caprice and Diane help a bleeding Taylor to his feet and the trio make a desperate dash deeper into the woods. There, they come across a church, which prompts Taylor to confess something to his family. The Bauers, Taylor explains, are deep in debt due to the many loans he’s taken out to maintain their lavish lifestyle, because he believed that he was never good enough for his wife.
To Taylor, Krampus is killing them as punishment for all the sins they’ve committed, and while Caprice doesn’t have anything about herself to share, she tells her parents that she believes that what’s happening is Duncan’s fault. All of the Bauers’ pets that have disappeared, Caprice explains, were toys to Duncan that he could torture and kill for fun. Diana refuses to believe her, but right on cue, Krampus shows up to kill Taylor and Diana while Caprice makes a run for it yet again in hopes of getting to Etta’s.
The way that A Christmas Horror Story’s specifically Krampus plot ends is too good a twist to spoil, and something you should watch for yourself. But it’s the movie’s ending as a whole that kinda drags things down, because it finally shows you what Krampus looks like and, well, he’s not scary at all.
While the idea of Santa Claus duking it out with the Christmas Devil sounds fantastic in theory, it’s difficult to really take all that seriously, considering that Krampus, portrayed by actor and stuntman Rob Archer, is more of an Instagram thirst-trap than a straight up monster.
Movies like The Shape of Water, Avengers: Infinity War, and Venom have demonstrated that there’s a very particular kind of balance between fear-inducing inhumanity and all-too-human carnality that, when struck properly, can bring out a blend of feelings in audiences, all adding up to a heightened sense of fear. Horror movies are meant to excite you, and adding a little titillation into the mix makes that much, much easier to do.
A Christmas Horror Story’s Krampus is too jacked, too human—too sexy to be properly scary. But then maybe that’s the point: Perhaps he’s not meant to be. A Christmas Horror Story is the kind of movie that knows how silly it is deep within its heart of hearts and it embraces that fact about itself fully. If the movie was trying to go for a harder, more grimdark kind of horror the way films like Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (also from 2015) did, it just wouldn’t work because those are much more relatively grounded.
A Christmas Horror Story is shooting for a distinct kind of mature campiness that’s meant to give you some jump scares and make you do a couple of double takes whenever the camera zooms in on Krampus’ abs and just lingers there for no reason. “You wanna see a hot monster that’s going to make you feel a bunch of contradictory, confusing things?” the film asks.
Why yes, A Christmas Horror Story. Yes, I do.
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