BY BRIAN TRUITT | GANNETT NEWS SERVICE
And you thought just getting on Santa Claus’ naughty list was a bad move.
Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty (“Trick ‘r Treat”) pulls from centuries-old European folklore to unleash a holiday-movie monster with “Krampus” (in theaters Dec. 4), which dabbles in Christmas film tropes as well as horror, comedy and dark fantasy.
“It’s one thing to be terrified or enthralled when you’re watching a film,” the filmmaker says. “To then leave the theater and realize it’s based on real myths and legends only makes it sink in even deeper.”
In the movie, young Max (Emjay Anthony) has reached the precarious age where he clings to the idea of Santa, even though the rest of the world doesn’t believe in him. The Christmas spirit really takes a hit when the boy sees how his dysfunctional family — including Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Allison Tolman — behaves when they come together for yuletide cheer, and Max is pretty much done with the whole thing.
Suddenly a blizzard and blackout hit their surroundings, meaning the horned-and-hooved Krampus and his sinister helpers are coming to town instead of the man with the bag.
Dougherty has long wanted to make a scary movie that embraced the magical aspects of the season, including a bearded guy living at the North Pole and elves that make toys for all good little boys and girls. Just the thought of Santa is creepy, he says: “That there is some sort of supernatural entity that keeps an eye on you all year long and determines if you’re naughty or nice.”
The look and character of the film’s Krampus was distilled from various postcards and illustrations of the creature over the years. He was historically tied to St. Nicholas beginning in the 17th century, and that’s the interpretation Dougherty is going with, that Krampus is “judge, jury and executioner” but also the “shadow” of Santa.
Just don’t call him evil, the director says. “He’s more complex and nuanced than that.”
One thing from the Krampus mythology that Dougherty definitely wanted to keep was the antagonist’s mischievous side.
“He’s not Freddy (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) or Jason (Friday the 13th) or Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), this unstoppable monster that kicks down your door and rampages and grabs you,” he says. “If you study the myth, there’s something darkly playful about him. He’s having a good time doing what he does and he enjoys the cat-and-mouse aspect of it.”
Because of the Christmas-movie nature, it was important to Dougherty that Krampus also tap into the heartwarming aspects of the season.
“A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life are kind of nightmares that show you these broken characters who experience a darker side of divine intervention. They need to be scared straight,” Dougherty says. “So it was important to elevate it.
“If you do a horror film without an emotional core, you don’t really have much.”