By David Weiner
It’s the holiday season, that time of year when shopping ramps up to a fever pitch, family dysfunction intensifies, and children’s thoughts turn to whether or not they’ve truly been naughty or nice.
Michael Dougherty, perhaps best known by genre fans as the director of the Halloween cult favorite TRICK ‘R’ TREAT alongside GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (as well as the writer of two X-MEN movies and SUPERMAN RETURNS), may just be the patron saint of holiday horror.
“I always loved the holidays as a kid — Halloween and Christmas especially,” says Dougherty. “All the traditions and customs that we go through are really, in a weird way, sort of centered around making kids, or the kid inside all of us, happy. Whether it’s trick or treating and dressing up in costumes, or Santa Claus and toys, there’s something about them that’s centered around the magic of childhood. And with that comes an inherent belief in magic and creatures and monsters.”
The story of a family that assembles for Christmas in suburban Ohio (Dougherty’s hometown), only to have their bickering blanketed by a supernatural blizzard and a visit from the anti-Claus, KRAMPUS (released in 2015) revels in taking the dark folklore tales of Santa’s mythical counterpart and tweaking them for a contemporary setting.
“Christmas is candy-coated, and sugar-coated, and commercialized, and you’re expected to wear a big smile on your face all the time, but I always felt in my gut that something isn’t right about it,” he says. “If you just spend 20 minutes doing research on the origins of Christmas, they’re just as dark and mysterious and weird as Halloween, because Christmas started as a pagan holiday.”
Dougherty deserves originality credit for bringing the Krampus to life. The monster movie genre is a tough one to capitalize on with a fresh face these days, as pretty much every monster has been spoken for dozens of times over, from vampires, zombies, and werewolves to Bigfoot and The Kraken. While Krampus has always been lurking about the earliest folklore tales, Hollywood had yet to turn the character into a treacherous force to be reckoned with.
“I was always wanting to do a creepy Christmas film, but I couldn’t find a mascot as a figurehead,” recalls Dougherty. “If you’re doing research about the true origins of Christmas, all roads sort of lead you to Krampus. You find out that at the center of all the celebrations and myths, there was this horned, demonic figure who came before Santa Claus. … Krampus was the original mascot of the holiday season.” Dougherty used to share classic Krampus postcard illustrations with friends via e-mail for laughs, and years later it finally dawned on him that he had his monster all along.
WHO, OR WHAT, IS KRAMPUS?
Unless you had a grandparent who would taunt you on Christmas Eve with tales of naughty kids being absconded by Krampus to the Underworld, not much is known by the general public about the demonic-looking creature. Dougherty gives us the Krampus 101: “If you really go to all the old postcards, he’s more of a mischief spirit than anything. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always having a good time. The postcard depictions have a really strong, wicked sense of humor. He’s not just some crazed maniac with an axe going around killing people. There’s a sense of fun and purpose to the character, and that was really important for us to retain in the film.”
Dougherty’s Krampus enjoys the cat-and-mouse nature of what he does. He likes to sit back and watch the screaming and chaos unfold with the help of his rogues’ gallery of minions and helpers, a unique conceit created for the film by Dougherty with his co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields. “He doesn’t work alone,” explains the filmmaker. “All in all, we have potentially nine or ten different monsters in this movie in addition to Krampus. It’s something that we thought would be fun, taking the Santa Claus myth and really turning it on its head. Santa doesn’t work alone — he’s got elves, and reindeer, and magical toys. We just thought it would be interesting if you really want to portray Krampus as the shadow of St. Nicholas, give Krampus a similar sort of arsenal.”
Billed as a horror-comedy, Dougherty points out that KRAMPUS does not veer into especially dark territory: “The fact that it’s a Christmas movie demands that you not take it too seriously from the start,” he says. “This isn’t THE SHINING.”
HYBRID EFFECTS: BALANCING PRACTICAL WITH CGI
As a child of the ‘80s and a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin-produced movies, Dougherty has always been keen on incorporating as many old-school practical effects and puppets in his films as possible. But he explains that while the anti-CGI-overload backlash continues to gather steam among filmmakers, a “hybrid” approach can be just as effective and compelling.
“It’s all about the tool, and the desired effect, and how to use it properly,” says Dougherty. “I think we definitely have lost our way by focusing too much on digital at times. But digital can also be a huge and helpful tool, and so I really enjoy the hybrid approach, where you get as much as you can in-camera with puppets and animatronics and everything else, but the beauty is that you can now, very easily and cheaply, go in and use a computer to enhance those puppets with some digital trickery. … So by doing that, there’s that perfect middle ground of charm where it’s clearly a puppet, but it’s doing things that a puppet shouldn’t be able to do, and there’s a texture that you don’t get if you use a digital creature.”
KRAMPUS was shot in New Zealand in order to employ Weta Workshop, the effects house used for all of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies. The Kiwi special effects and prop company based in Miramar made all of the physical puppets and did all the pixel pushing, including digital set extensions, atmospheric effects, removing rods and wires and even puppeteers from shots, and creating some digital characters that “are made to feel practical.”
THE BEST SPECIAL EFFECT: A PERFECT CAST
Of course, no amount of digital magic can compensate for a lackluster story or, even worse, poorly cast actors. KRAMPUS boasts the likes of Toni Collette, Adam Scott, Allison Tolman, David Koechner, Conchata Ferrell, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler, and Emjay Anthony, who amount to a wonderful troupe of actors who can capably walk that fine line between comedy and drama.
“The first 15 minutes [of the film] is straight-up Christmas family dramedy, and then things start to shift,” explains Dougherty. “It was important to find actors who — if this were strictly a Christmas family dramedy — you would buy and believe.”
“I still slap myself every now and then when I step back and look at the cast that we assembled,” he continues.” I think they got the joke. They knew that the intention of the film was not dark or sinister, but that we wanted to hearken back to ‘80s, Amblin-style genre films. I sort of mourn the fact that tone went away. There was a whole era where you had GREMLINS, POLTERGEIST, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, THE THING, and they were all genre films that weren’t afraid to dance around a different genre. They were all mashups to a certain degree, and they all had this perfect balance of horror and humor and heart. [The KRAMPUS cast] all grew up on those movies, and I think we all sort of collectively missed them to a certain extent. Now it was our turn to make one, and hopefully re-introduce this tone and genre to a new generation.”
(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #283)
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