It came not to reward but to punish; not to give but to take.
In the 2015 horror-comedy Krampus, young Max (Emjay Anthony) turns his back on the “happiest time of the year” when a family visit over the holidays erupts into chaos. In doing so, it catches the attention of Krampus, a yuletide demon. The nefarious anti-Santa sends minions to make the family’s life hell, starting with leaving unsettling snowmen creations outside the family home before devolving into a full-on assault. Krampus’ fiends certainly have a dark sense of humor, as seen with gingerbread cookies turning into Gremlin-like tiny terrors and a jack-in-the-box that mutates into a slithering, fanged monstrosity. Once they’ve had their fun, the head beast makes a grand entrance, all horned, cloaked, and menacing. The one person among the helpless family that realizes who is to blame, is Omi (Krista Sadler). She, too, experienced the wrath of Krampus during childhood and while this works to further the plot, Omi’s admission works on another level.
Told in Rankin/Bass inspired animation, Omi’s memory of her home in post-World War 2 Austria comes alive for audiences. Villagers fight over bread rations, viciously destroying little Omi’s own supply. And when she returns home without any food, her parents destroy her toy doll, mistaking it for something to devour. These two coinciding incidents could depress even the most joyous of persons and that’s what happens to poor Omi. She denounces Christmas, unknowingly allowing Krampus to slip into her house. Once inside, it takes its claim, snatching up her parents and leaving behind a rusty bell, a parting gift to remember what happens when one loses the Christmas spirit. It isn’t until after Omi reveals this memory, that audiences and the onscreen family around her realize she knew more than she let on. She also knows English, not just her native German tongue, although there’s an important aspect to that, too. Despite what it may seem on the surface, Krampus doesn’t rely on its titular villain to only be a harbinger of yuletide ill-will and even more simply, a horror movie monster. It uses the beast to represent the consequences when the past is repressed by an immigrant.
At the start of the film, the core members of the Engel family arrive home after a school concert has gone to hell. Parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are flustered and anxious, not so much over their young son Max’s fight with a bully over Santa’s existence, but rather over the approaching arrival of extended family. They depart into different rooms and so does Max’s older sister Beth, who swiftly confines herself to her bedroom to jump onto a Facetime chat with her boyfriend. That leaves Max to stay behind with Omi as she works on just one of many batches of homemade cookies in the kitchen. She speaks loving words, all in German, and from the interaction it’s obvious who the favorite Engel grandchild is. Except for Max, Omi is overlooked by nearly everyone else, including her own son who lets her know that plenty of store-made cookies have been bought. Aside from the fact that her baked goods are beautifully crafted, her son hardly appreciates it at all. The moment is a small but telling one, where audiences are quickly let in on Omi’s place in the household.
In the same scene, it’s revealed Tom understands his mother yet he doesn’t speak German back to her. Not until later on do audiences find out whether he holds the linguistic skills. It comes when his daughter goes missing in the escalating blizzard outside. Tom goes to search for her but Omi tries to warn him against the idea, sensing something is wrong. Max translates what she’s saying but Tom responds back to her, this time in her own tongue. As for Max, his communication skills are far different. He knows some words. Overall, he nods along, getting the gist of what she is telling him. It would appear he understands her but he doesn’t speak the language himself. From the DVD commentary, the original plan was for Omi to be deaf. Had that remained, it would have completely altered the character, making her even more isolated from the people around her, although the lack of onscreen subtitles for the character is glaringly apparent. There is a disconnect that grounds the relationship between Omi, her son, and grandson, and it’s a common issue found among immigrants in the United States.
The children of immigrants tend to lose their bilingual ability, due to the first language not being used as much. Another factor in that loss is found within the American school systems, which don’t put forth good efforts to help the children of immigrants maintain their first language. English is dominantly taught and used in the classrooms, through and through. In an article on NCBI covering the language development of immigrant children, Claudio O. Toppelberg, MD and Brian A. Collins, PhD stated that, “due to the assimilative forces that propel children of immigrants to learn English quickly,” the language shift begins in school. By the third generation, or the grandkids, unless the older family members help divert this, the heritage language is completely gone.
When that happens, communication between the eldest and youngest relatives becomes incredibly difficult, if not impossible. In the NCBI article, there is a misconception over immigrant children not learning enough English. In actuality, it’s the complete opposite. Compared to generations in the past, the loss of the first language, “is occurring much sooner than in prior waves of immigration, when it was more typical for the second generation to remain bilingual, and only for the third to become English dominant.” But there’s additional societal circumstances than simply an English-dominant education. Stigmas and discrimination continue to persist against individuals speaking foreign languages in public. Why would parents, or even the children themselves, want to make their lives harder if a change as simple as using English, could be implemented?
The main conflict in the film and all the ensuing madness could have easily been averted with one crucial decision, if she told her story. But this can be said for a lot of movies, where if one character did just one thing different, said just one thing beforehand, everything would be different. There would also be no story to tell. In Krampus, it is the shame a grandmother feels from her childhood in a different country that keeps her quiet. Omi remains the only one in her family who knows German. If her son or grandson knew more of the language, perhaps they would ask about her past, something she surely wouldn't want to divulge prior to the events of the film. So she kept to herself. Her secret is a great cinematic representation of the shame and “otherness” first generation immigrants in the United States feel. They hope to assimilate as best as they can and ensure their children aren’t seen as outsiders due to their “un-American” heritage. In doing so, the second and third generation don’t gain an essential part of their identity.
It’s a very American Christmas celebrated in Krampus too. Gun talk is casually brought in and hushed up when the family is around the dinner table. Linda and Howard (played by Allison Tolman and David Koechner respectively) are the polar opposites to Sarah and Tom in every way. The Engels are upper-middle class living in suburbia while Linda and Howard are talked down as being “country folk.” In dialogue jabs, Linda and Howard are both surprised and annoyed at the arrival of large mail packages looking awfully like gift bags (one being from Krampus) and when Howard wonders why “rich people get all the free stuff,” Linda rebuffs it as something related to “Democrats.” The Engel house itself is very American, appearing similar to a location in a Christmas classic, the elaborate booby-trapped residence in Home Alone. Even the use of the Krampus lore is Americanized for this Hollywood product, limiting its Germanic origins through flashbacks and using Omi as a cultural stand-in.
When Max wonders outloud to his father why they have to be stuck with the extended family, Tom tries to figure out how to respond. At first, he answers with, “That’s what a family is, people you try to be friends with even if you don’t have a lot in common.” And then, perhaps seeing how it wasn’t the most positive of examples, he thinks about it some more. He tells his son that being part of a family “makes us work a little harder to find what we do have in common.” And that’s what happens, the whole family comes together to fight against Krampus and the minions. Director Michael Dougherty might have hoped this message was the key takeaway when the credits rolled, since the theatrical release was in December 2015, when political parties were only starting to split people against one another. Things were only going to get much worse and chaotic, which makes the bleak ending of Krampus rather appropriate. Omi decides to give the remaining family a headstart and sacrifices herself. Her son does the same and on it goes until the adults are gone, the cousins too, and Max is the only one left standing but not for long.
After the first watch, maybe even several viewings afterwards, it may seem everything is alright as the movie comes to a close. Don't look to Doughtery for answers. In the DVD commentary, he still won’t reveal what his own intentions were, leaving it up to audience interpretation. After every family member is taken by Krampus and Max is thrown into a fiery pit, he wakes up. Like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Max sees that everything is back to normal, the nightmare is over, he’s finally awake. A perfect snowfall is happening outside, almost blindingly white. Downstairs, the whole family has gathered in the living room to open gifts, laughs and smiles are shared among them all, everyone is getting along. It’s almost too good to be true. Then Max finds a strange gift no one admits to having gotten. Inside is a great big bell, not at all as sentimental like the one in The Polar Express. The bell is the same one Omi once received and it seems pretty clear, with the expressions dropping on everyone’s faces, Max didn’t have a nightmare. All that happened really did occur. The camera pulls away and the Engels house is shown to be encased in a snowglobe, a souvenir carefully placed on a shelf with many others, in a lair a sensible yuletide demon would be quite at home in. There are two ways to look at this ending and they involve just how much Christmas spirit you have in yourself.
The first is the Engel family are not physically trapped and Krampus simply has a watchful eye on them for another misstep. Then there is the ending where they are physically trapped and will enjoy an infinite Christmas morning together, with no escape in the near future. Even if one or the other is the actual ending intended, both have something to say about Omi. Whether metaphorically or not, she is and will always be trapped in this slice of Christmas Americana. Maybe she will grow closer to those around her, now that her truth is out. Like what is happening in the real world with immigrant families in the United States, one can only wish there will be a new push for them to keep their respective heritage alive and not repressed from the shame of being considered an “other.” With how unstable the current times are, it remains in question. Being hopeful is what the yuletide season is all about, but it’s not without a hint of darkness.
‘Krampus: The Naughty Cut’ is now available on 4K blu-ray from Shout Factory.
Chris Sasaguay is a Horror Features Writer for Collider. His passion in all the dark thrills of scary movies is thanks to a spooky childhood. Growing up, he visited family who lived in the Headless Horseman territory of Sleepy Hollow. Furthermore, if he should ever meet the iconic Jamie Lee Curtis, he’ll swiftly update his profile pic with the encounter. Stay tuned.
It came not to reward but to punish; not to give but to take.