We all know about Santa Claus, but what of his less savory companions? The figures of Zwarte Piet/Black Peter and Knecht Ruprecht/Servant Ruprecht, who are charged with dealing out punishments to the bad children on Santa’s twice-checked list, go back nearly as far as Santa Claus himself. The same is true of Krampus the horned incubus, the most prominent and horrific of Santa’s “helpers.” Like Black Peter and Servant Ruprecht, Krampus is said to carry a rod to beat errant children, and a sack to haul them away (to Hell, presumably).
The legend of Krampus ultimately stretches back far beyond that of Santa Claus. Krampus’s origins can be traced back to the Yule Goat, who presided over pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, and also Loki, a Norse deity known for terrorizing children. It wasn’t until the early 15th Century that the Krampus we know and love came into prominence as a Christmas devil who carried out the dirty work of Saint Nicholas. The latter, of course, was one of the earliest incarnations of what we now know as Santa Claus, although Krampus has been exempted from his retinue.
Krampus lore is quite prevalent in Europe–in Germany, for instance, it’s apparently become something of a Christmastime tradition for young men to indulge in Krampuslaufens nighttime sprees in which they dress up like Krampus and scare people. In America, alas, Krampus has until very recently been all-but unknown. Note how all of the following books and films hail from the last three years (earlier European made examples include the TV movies DER KRAMPUS from 1969 and KRAMPUS UND ANGELICA from 1965, both of which are apparently lost).
It’s not insignificant that the 2015 film KRAMPUS is said to have been inspired by a mention of Krampus on the TONIGHT SHOW by German actor Christoph Waltz. That the film’s makers knew very little about the history of Krampus is evident in the simplistic slasher movie narrative, offset by the type of gooey sentimentality and preachiness that are de rigueur in Hollywood Christmas movies.
To be fair, director Michael Dougherty (of TRICK R TREAT) makes a concerted attempt to add some gravitas to the oft-silly proceedings, involving an American family whose fraught Christmas celebration is invaded by Krampus and his minions. Inspired touches include a flock of evil gingerbread men and an animated flashback sequence that adroitly apes those moldy old Rankin-Bass holiday TV specials (SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN, RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER, etc), but all the good things are overpowered by the seriously lame conclusion, one of those it’s-all-a-dream-but-not endings to which Hollywood has become dangerously attached.
There’s really no point going into much detail about KRAMPUS: THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL, a digitally shot no-budgeter released in 2013. It depicts the title character as a featureless personage who hangs out in a chicken coop together with a goateed Santa Claus, a chained-up naked lady and some kidnapped children. Decked out with stilted acting, dimestore production values and crummy death metal tunes on the soundtrack, the pic is typical SOV fodder through and through.
2015’s KRAMPUS: THE RECKONING, another no-budget SOV production, isn’t much better, although it is a bit more polished technically, and contains a reasonably impressive depiction of Krampus as a skull-faced CGI creation. The film’s center, unfortunately, is a little girl who appears to have a special connection to Krampus, leading to a lot of boredom involving the girl and a kindly woman shrink, broken up only by some gratuitous sex and nudity.
There was yet another Krampus themed horror movie that appeared in 2015, the Canadian made A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY. It’s an anthology project centered on William Shatner as a DJ who obliquely comments on the film’s four interwoven segments, about some overly inquisitive teens trapped in a building where a brutal series of murders occurred a year earlier, a couple whose son displays alarming behavioral changes following a sojourn in a haunted forest, a family’s none-too-pleasant encounter with Krampus in a deserted church, and Santa Claus harassed by zombie elves, topped off with another appearance by the Big K.
The Krampus of this film is very Abominable Snowman-like, and not nearly as impressive as he could have been–which sums up the special effects overall, most of them accomplished via substandard CGI, and also the tacky synthesizer score. A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY had promise to be sure, but it never lives up to its ambitions.
To date, the most memorable portrayal of Krampus in a book or movie occurs in KRAMPUS THE YULE LORD, a 2012 novel by Brom. As is made clear in a nonfiction afterword, Brom’s goal was to restore Krampus to his pre-Christian origins as a symbol of fertility. Yes, Krampus is actually portrayed as a good guy in these pages, and his nemesis Santa Claus as a wily hypocrite.
The novel pivots on Jesse, a frustrated singer who comes into contact with Krampus via a magic bag dropped by Santa that can seemingly make things appear out of thin air. Jesse uses the bag to obtain a lot of neat toys, and also wads of cash. Yet the bag also puts Jesse in the sights of Santa, Krampus and the latter’s retinue of undead helpers. Jesse himself becomes one of those helpers, and as such accompanies Krampus on his version of Christmas Eve, which involves a lot of messy home invasions.
Other issues brought up in these pages include meth addiction, child abuse and the depletion of the environment. There’s even a mini-history lesson about the origins of Krampus and Santa Claus, who is here traced back to the figure of Baldr from Norse mythology. Yet the novel is ultimately pretty shallow; it may make for a good movie some day, but right now it’s a puddle-deep entertainment.
The recent flurry of Krampus themed media shows that interest in this heretofore obscure figure is on the rise. Several Krampus movies are in the pipeline for 2016 and beyond, including THE KRAMPUS, BEWARE THE KRAMPUS and KRAMPUS: THE DEVIL RETURNS (the sequel to the abovementioned CHRISTMAS DEVIL, for which I’m sure we’re all breathless with anticipation). Let’s hope they’re superior to what has come before, because despite one above-average attempt the definitive Krampus book/movie has yet to emerge.