As a skinny goth Jew growing up in SoCal, all I knew about Christmas I learned from the movies. Life is precious (It's a Wonderful Life); air rifles are precious (A Christmas Story); booby traps are useful (Home Alone). Through the middle-school pageants, department-store muzak, and neighborhood light shows I passed like a ghost—a nebbishy ghost in combat boots—the Ghost of Christmas Not to Come.
When Christmas finally came around, Chanukah had come and gone. The mishpachah would eat Chinese and maybe catch a matinee. It's not that I envied the Christians and their day. At its height, it would strike me like some mass possession—Jonestown or the Salem Witch Trials. People wore these crazy smiles, their eyes fever-bright while their throats warbled song. My family found itself content to be marooned on a holly-less, jolly-less outpost.
The so-called anti-Christmas movies always better embodied my holiday spirit: a drunk Margot Kidder feeding a little boy booze in proto-slasher flick Black Christmas (1974); Bill Murray ordering a wary PA to staple mini-antlers to a mouse's head in Scrooged (1988); Phoebe Cates telling her grotesque Christmas story to her cringing teenage boyfriend in Gremlins (1984); and a wasted Dan Ackroyd in a putrid Santa suit, lolling on a city bus, pulling a whole salmon out from the fringe of his coat and biting into it at the end of Trading Places (1983). These movies were emblems of my lifelong alienation.
Which is why when I first saw the trailer for Krampus, a yuletide horror-comedy which opened last weekend, I got that familiar, fuzzy, anti-Christmas feeling. The film begins with a well-to-do family in a comfortable state of anomie, with parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), and kids Max (Emjay Anthony) and Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen). Mom and Dad's marriage is down-at-the-heels ("I miss us," maunders Toni Collette), Beth is dating a stoner and Max's lost his Christmas. None of this gets better quick when their Pennsyltucky relatives roll into town in Uncle Howard's (David Koechner) Hummer, pitting left-wing in stark opposition to right, those who drink scotch against those who drink beer, because family isn't, like, perfect, you know?
A disappointed Max shreds his letter to Santa, which balefully flurries off into the wind, causing a dark force—Krampus—to muster in the cosmos. Over all of this broods stoic soothsayer Omi (Krista Sadler), Dad's Teutonic grandma, who is frequently found throughout the film stirring the fire, brewing hot chocolate, and whetting a cleaver. She explains in a heavily German-accented English why a freak blackout storm has enveloped the suburb, allowing a beardy pagan demi-god called Krampus to leap over roofs in a clamor of hooves. (The very metal-looking Krampus is a real thing in Austria and Bavarian Germany, where Krampus cos-players run drunk through the streets whacking children with sticks to exalt Krampusnacht.) He is "Santa Claus' shadow," she informs us by firelight – a horned colossus dripping with chains and black robes.
We get Omi's own childhood encounter with Krampus in an animated shadow play midway through the film. People in her village in Germany are starving. It's the mid-20th century; we see bombed-out buildings. When Krampus arrives in the wake of the famine to stoke the destructive impulse of mankind, historically speaking, it's clear what he stands for. According to Omi, he left her alive "to remind me what happens when hope is lost, when belief is forgotten, and when the Christmas spirit dies."
Anti-Christmas movies may not be game-changing, but they're still the most inclusive in the greater yuletide genre, because they embark on its signature theme with an irreverence that both Jews and gentiles can appreciate.
But the nuanced allusions stop there. Krampus is best when it's just being Krampus, a middling anti-Christmas flick. Its allusions to the movies that precede it are many: The family's crude, eggnog-swilling Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) recalls the alkie sorority mother (Marian Waldman) from Black Christmas; Krampus' legion demonic familiars skitter and cackle like Joe Dante's Gremlins. The creature effects are the highlight of Krampus, boasting "elves" in carven masks, an unholy Christmas angel with a very long tongue, and a flesh-eating jack-in-the-box that slithers along like Poe's Conqueror Worm.
While Krampus and company besiege the house, relationships heal and alliances form. In PG-13 ways, folks die. I won't spoil the end, but I will spoil the moral: The Christmas spirit never dies. All you need is something bad like, say, a heinous pagan demi-god, to realize what matters. When Krampus departs, so does disillusionment.
As I watched the final few minutes of Krampus, I realized that this anti-Christmas movie was really just a Christmas-Christmas movie in disguise. With their moral, somewhat schmaltzy endings, these films aren't nearly as transgressive as they hold themselves to be. Instead of the subversion I had wanted to witness as a mostly-recovering goth and a Jew, what I had really been watching was a hidden affirmation.
By nature, Jews are fatalistic. My family is no exception. Daily aches and pains spell doom. Meat, when undercooked, is fatal. There's an old Jewish joke by 50s comedian Alan King that I can't get enough of: "A summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat."
Basically, this is what happens in Krampus. It's not a good film, but it's got a dark heart. Anti-Christmas movies may not be game-changing, but they're still the most inclusive in the greater yuletide genre, because they embark on its signature theme with an irreverence that both Jews and gentiles can appreciate.
Like so many good Jewish boys before me, I married an Irish-Italian woman. These days, Christmas with her family is a past time I've come to enjoy. Once, this took place in a house in New Hampshire—a state not exactly a stronghold for Jews—and the pre-Christmas hours had us handcrafting ornaments to bedeck a fir tree we had cut down ourselves. (Oi vey, my mind reeled. I hope someone yells timber.) Some made angels, others elves. I made what I described to my wife as a "golem"—a Jewish mud monster of Talmudic derivation, the closest thing we have to Krampus—though to her it resembled a humanoid frog in a pink leotard, which was generous, probably.
Her family smiled. Then they topped the tree with it. Monsters help us understand the things we feel we'd rather not.
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