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Hidden Horrors of Peacock: The Holiday Horror Delights of Krampus

This month, we're taking a look at an ambitious and fun Christmas horror film based on a classic legend.

By Matthew Jackson
Omi (Krista Stadler) faces a giant horned and clawed Krampus in Krampus (2015).

Welcome to Hidden Horrors of Peacock, a monthly column spotlighting off-the-beaten-path scary movies available to watch right now on NBCUniversal's streaming service. From cult classics to forgotten sequels to indie gems you've maybe never heard of, we've got you covered.  

It's December once again, which means it's time to talk about Christmas horror films. Fortunately, Peacock is well-stocked with several, including the all-time greatest of the subgenre, Black Christmas. But this is about the more hidden horror films out there, so we're not talking the best of the best, the one everyone knows about. Instead, we're going to talk about a film that I think people still aren't watching enough this time of year, a film that seems like the perfect December horror watch that's still not getting enough love: Michael Dougherty's Krampus.

Why Christmas Season Should Most Definitely Be Krampus Season

Yes, after making one of the all-time best Halloween horror films with Trick 'r Treat in 2009, Dougherty turned his attention to Christmas, and focused on the internet's favorite folkloric monster from the season, the horned creature known as Krampus. It was, of course, only a matter of time before someone decided to make a Krampus movie for a major studio, and we're very fortunate that Dougherty turned out to be the man for the job. Scary, funny, and full of wonderful seasonal touches, it's a film that's still not being watched enough each holiday season, so let's talk about why it deserves more attention.

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In the world of the film, Krampus is a creature who arrives when Christmas spirit is sapped, when the world is cold and unforgiving and someone, forgetting the true meaning of Christmas, makes a wish that they shouldn't have made. In this case, that person is Max (Emjay Anthony), who still believes in Santa Claus as the film begins, but loses sight of his Christmas joy along the way. Max's extended family is in town for the holidays, including his obnoxious cousins and his standoffish Aunt (Allison Tolman) and Uncle (David Koechner), and he doesn't like it. His parents (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) urge him to make the best of it, but eventually he can't take it anymore, and he says something he shouldn't, renounces his belief in Santa, and wishes Christmas could be the way it once was. 

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that means that Krampus comes calling, summoning a blizzard to trap the family and then hunting them one by one, determined to make Max's wish come true in its own dark way. If Max hopes to save his family, he has to listen to his German grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) and try to take back his wish.

Krampus (Gideon Emery) appears as a wrinkly old monster roaring in Krampus (2015)

This setup has a lot of potential, and it's made more promising by Dougherty's ability to completely immerse us in the trappings of the holiday. For all its eventual darkness, Krampus is visually an extremely Christmassy experience, taking place mostly in a beautifully decorated house where Christmas cookies and eggnog are overflowing. Max's parents do well, it turns out, and that means they can afford to shower their family with holiday cheer, which creates no small amount of tension with the poorer members of the family. That tension, and other classic holiday drama, is part of what fuels Max's eventual dark wish, and it forms a kind of dread-inducing backbone for the narrative. Max summons Krampus because he's frustrated by the same things that frustrate all of us at Christmas, and that makes the film both relatable and, when the horror kicks in, a little gut-wrenching, because he's unknowingly hurting the ones he loves.

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But what makes Krampus truly special is that Dougherty doesn't stop there. The film could push ahead as a grim, wintry story of a monster picking off members of a family one by one, but this is the guy who made Trick 'r Treat, who knows how to keep infusing seasonal delights into a story. So Krampus brings along his own little bag of tricks to go along with the theme that he's a dark mirror of Santa Claus. That means that, even as things get dark and even tragic, Dougherty balances things out with over-the-top comedy, as the family fights everything from sentient gingerbread men to Krampus' "elves" to a gigantic bird with a baby doll's face. Yes, that's as freaky as it sounds, and yes, it's a blast to watch.

All of this has the effect of rooting Krampus in the strange emotional push-pull that we all experience during the holidays. Christmas is, even in the best of circumstances, stressful and delightful, funny and sad, overwhelming and underwhelming in equal measure. We all deal with weird family drama, disappointment, the sense that we can never do enough, the feeling that maybe the magic is dying. Krampus takes all those feelings and gives them form with a creature feature tale that's simultaneously extremely amusing and quite unsettling, and that makes it not just a Christmas horror movie, but a great encapsulation of Christmas in general.

Krampus is now streaming on Peacock.

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