“St. (Nicholas) Elsewhere”
In my favorite scene from Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984), while under attack from the monstrous progeny of her boyfriend Billy’s Christmas present, Kate (Phoebe Cates) invokes an urban legend to explain the trauma of the holiday season. Her father attempted to fuel her child-like wonderment by impersonating Santa Claus, and sliding down the chimney. However, he got stuck and died, only later discovered as charred flesh when the family lit a fire to celebrate. This tragic story interrupts a horror-comedy devoted to critiquing contemporary American life: the gremlins are rapacious and bathe in commercialism.
The same black comedy about Christmas fuels the excellent new horror film parody, Krampus. Directed by Michael Dougherty, who, after the cult hit Trick ‘r Treat (2007) seems to be positioning himself as the Orson Welles of the anti-holiday film, Krampus begins with a tour-de-force opening in which holiday shoppers are revealed at their worst, fighting each other for holiday gifts. Store police must use Tasers to quell the rapacious shoppers, as out of control as any 1980s gremlins.
When the film settles into its main story, we meet Max, son of Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), a middle-aged couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Sarah is particularly stressed because her sister’s family, a bunch of redneck boors, is coming to stay with them for the holidays. Bathed in such family discord, Max loses faith in the Christmas season, finally ripping up his letter to Santa Claus, and tossing the shards out into the winter wind.
This gesture causes all hell to break loose: an unexpected winter blizzard traps the family in their house, leaving them to fend for themselves when an evil spirit comes to punish the family for their ill behavior. The one character with knowledge of what’s going on is Omi (Krista Stadler), Max’s grandmother, an elderly Austrian woman. After a number of attacks, Omi finally explains to the family the Alpine legend of St. Nicholas’ dark spirit, a beast that punishes children for not believing in Santa Claus.
As Omi relates her earlier experience with Krampus as a young girl, the film animates her tale using stop motion animation and puppetry, a joke on the typical Rankin-Bass American television holiday fare, full of treacle. Omi’s story of Krampus’ arrival in her hometown oozes with ideological weight. She loses hope when a kindly gesture of bread given to her is ripped out of her hands by a rapacious mob. Set in World War II-era Eastern Europe, the Holocaust looms. Is Omi a Jewish victim of Nazi-created poverty in the ghetto, or is her family reaping the harvest of Nazi oppression of others? The film’s ambiguity about such matters is its greatest artistic achievement.
Such matters come to the fore in the film’s final moments. Max wakes up as if from a dream. The film’s bleakness has now vanished. The family begins celebrating a typical Christmas morning. Yet, just as we are developing a profound disappointment at the film’s seeming retreat into holiday banality, we learn that this happy scene is merely taking place in a snow globe held by the demonic Krampus in his workshop. Indeed, as the camera tracks out we discover the family we’ve come to care about is one of hundreds strewn around the bleak, arctic lair of the monster.
The moment summons two great Christmas moments in media texts otherwise not associated with the holidays. The ending of Krampus engages one of the greatest final episodes of any American television show, St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-1988). In “The Last One” (5/25/1988), a small autistic boy holds a snow globe in his hands as his father and grandfather worry about him. As they prepare for dinner, they put the snow globe on top of the television; the camera tracks forward to reveal that inside the globe is St. Eligius, the beleaguered teaching hospital that has heretofore been the entire show’s sole focus.
The St. Elsewhere episode asks profound questions about the nature of our engagement with audio-visual narrative. If the entire six seasons of the show was merely the invention of an autistic child, is our deep emotional investment in such characters just foolish? Or, to the contrary, is our intense engagement with a created world testament to the human ability to deeply care about that which is not ourselves?
Krampus directs these questions to the nature of the Christmas film itself. Inside Krampus’ snow globe is not a hospital, but Max’s middle-class family home. Are we happy that the characters have finally found happiness with their previously estranged family members? Or, is this family trapped in the false happiness of the holiday movie’s artifice, caged by the demonic spirit, Krampus? The film is utterly silent about any answers.
Furthermore, the most famous snow globe in film history is that which Charles Foster Kane drops at the moment of his death as Citizen Kane (1941) begins. I suggested earlier that Michael Dougherty might be the Orson Welles of the holiday film. The ending of Krampus demonstrates that this is no joke: Citizen Kane strikes at the hollowness of the American drive to acquire all. We see the snow globe repeatedly throughout the film as Kane’s promising life devolves into failure. At the end, all of the wealth he has acquired from a Europe smoldering under Nazism is itself burned in Xanadu’s furnace. Krampus is a brilliant film for worrying that even at the moment when we think we are doing our best, during the Christmas holidays, we might in fact be trapped within a fantasy of good will that masks our true location, in a cold, indifferent universe filled with loneliness and despair.