In the mid-2000s, Michael Dougherty was a screenwriter on the rise with superhero films like “Superman Returns” and “X2” to his credit. However, he revealed his true passion in 2007 with his directorial debut “Trick ‘r Treat,” a cult favorite that made Dougherty one of the most talked about horror auteurs of the decade.
Still, it took Dougherty eight long years to bring fear-loving fans his freaky follow-up. Thankfully, the creepy Christmas tale “Krampus” is well worth the wait.
Starring Toni Collette, Adam Scott, David Koechner, Allison Tolman and Emjay Anthony, “Krampus” blends elements of yuletide lore and Christmas classics like “Gremlins,” “Christmas Vacation” and “A Christmas Carol” to create a terrifying holiday treat for the whole family. It’s PG-13, but the filmmaker encourages, “Bring your family!”
When SPINOFF spoke with Dougherty, we discovered he loves the holidays just as much as he does horror. He shared not only the diverse cinematic inspirations for “Krampus,” but also his thoughts on how horror has evolved, the problem with Black Friday, how “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a horror story in its own right, and why Christmas stories come to life would shatter our sanity.
Spinoff Online: Can you tell me about the journey from making “Trick ‘r Treat” to “Krampus”?
Michael Dougherty: It’s definitely a bit of a winding path. Funny enough, I actually thought of “Krampus” as a potential movie before “Trick ‘r Treat.” While I was working on “Superman Returns,” I started to discover the Krampus greeting cards. That was probably around 2004. But long before that I always wanted to do a creepy Christmas horror movie, but I couldn’t quite crack it. The best I could come up with when I was a kid was “Santa Claws,” like C-L-A-W-S, but it felt kind of cheesy. I always used to draw my own creepy Christmas cards and send them out to my friends and family. They would feature carnivorous snowmen or evil gingerbread men. The foundation for “Krampus” was really from a lot of my old drawings.
That’s kind of amazing.
So then, when I finished “Trick ‘r Treat” and it finally came out, I tried to get a few other projects going; they never quite came together. Then, I started talking to my co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields about Krampus, and it just started to snowball, no pun intended. We started to pick up speed. It starts off with your standard Christmas family dramedy. It starts off like “Home Alone” or “Christmas Vacation,” then gets invaded by this really dark fairy tale.
I really loved that. And I think a big part of what makes the family dramedy aspect work so well is that you have an incredible cast. How did this ensemble come together?
Christmas miracle? [Laughs.] I don’t know! It was just amazing. I still slap myself. I can’t believe our luck. These are actors I’ve been a fan of for a really long time, and admired and never thought I’d be able to work with.
Were you producers saying, “We should reach out to these people,” or did you have a wish list?
A bit of both. I definitely had a wish list, but Thomas Tull over at Legendary was also a huge fan of “Fargo” the TV series. So when we started developing the script, he was like, “Listen, there’s an amazing actress named Allison Tolman. You got to watch the “Fargo” TV series. It’s got a very similar darkly comedic sensibility to it.” I watched the one episode and ending up binging the rest over the weekend. Alison was the first actress we went to, funny enough. It turns out, lo and behold, she’s a huge horror nut. And she was the first one to sign up.
Emjay Anthony [who plays the young hero Max] was a longer search. Any time you need to cast kids, you tend to have to look at a lot of them. But I had worked with Jon Favreau on a TV project, and he called up and was like, “Hey, I heard you’re auditioning Emjay” [who co-starred with him in “Chef”]. Favreau gave him his stamp of approval, which obviously means a lot.
He’s such a plucky, adorable kid; he fits so well in both films.
Yeah, he’s definitely a talent to be reckoned with.
As a big fan of creature features, I think people who loved “Trick ‘r Treat” won’t be disappointed in “Krampus.” There are a lot of creature effects in this. Can you talk about that?
I feel like we live in sad times as far as creature features go. I’m very happy that horror has definitely reclaimed its rightful place as a respected genre. There’s more horror now than there ever has been, and there’s more diverse horror than we’ve ever seen. When I was trying get “Trick ‘r Treat” going back in 2001, nobody wanted to go near it. No one wanted to go near horror, period, really. The only horror they wanted to make was Japanese horror remakes or “Scream” knockoffs. We didn’t have zombies and werewolves and vampires — nobody wanted to go near those guys; they were considered old-fashioned. But now everywhere you turn, it’s zombies and werewolves and vampires. It’s almost too much of a good thing. But I think what we have been missing out on is real monsters, not people in monster makeup necessarily, but legit creatures and puppets like “Alien” or “The Thing,” or “Gremlins,” obviously.
And so, my cohorts and I said, “Well, this should be a full-blown monster movie,” because something that has always struck me about Christmas traditions and Christmas folklore is it’s supposed to be this time of year when magical things happen. Gingerbread men come to life and toys come to life, and they’re enchanting and magical! And I’ve always taken a position of saying, “No! It’s not magical. If you saw that happen your sanity would be shattered! You would lose your mind. You would shit yourself. You would run screaming.” And so, we decided to expand Krampus’ mythology a bit, and shift it and say, “Well, if Santa Claus has all these fun sidekicks and helpers, why wouldn’t Krampus?” So we have the diabolical, twisted versions of those things. And it grew from there. All of a sudden we’re building the story with these bizarre snowmen and cherubs and other toys.
How did you decide on practical over digital effects?
Most of them lended themselves to being practical. The snowmen are obviously practical because they don’t really do anything besides sit there and be creepy. But then it was like, well, what’s the best way to pull this character off? When you’re dealing with toys that come to life and attack people, then it should just be toys. Part of the charm of the original Chucky movies [“Child’s Play”] was these actors rolling around and wrestling with these Chucky dolls, because there’s something ludicrous about it and kind of funny. Like, I used to have nightmares about getting attacked by the Muppets. And there’s a charm and a texture to that. So obviously that made sense to use practical when it came to toys. Krampus, same thing. Krampus is very much inspired by “Alien” or “Pumpkinhead,” or a very long list of man-in-suit-style puppet creatures.
In both “Trick ‘r Treat” and “Krampus” there’s a theme of punishing rule breakers. Why do you think that so appeals to you?
I like morality tales. I like fairy tales, which really are morality tales with a fantasy twist. They were designed to scare kids into realizing there are dangers out there, and there are ways to handle those dangers. And I think the holidays are meant to be something very noble. They’re meant to be time spent with people you love and engage in certain traditions that hold our really society together if embraced properly. But when you ignore those traditions and customs or you do them without acknowledging the true spirit of them, you’re not doing them properly. And I think we’re living in the end result of that. That means now we really embrace Black Friday shopping mobs and just the insanity of the holidays. It’s really this bizarre mass hysteria that we have allowed to exist. And it seemed like, well, these various protectors of the holiday — Krampus or Sam — are sort of the bad cops. They are there to scare us straight.
They’re defenders of sincerity! I admit I was very nervous about watching “Krampus,” because I love horror movies, I love holiday movies, but I hate cynical holiday movies. This is a very sincere movie.
It’s meant to be. We’re hugely inspired by “A Christmas Carol,” which I view as the original Christmas horror story because it is. It is. Any time I ever get the, “How can you ever do this about Christmas? This is blasphemous.” I’m like, have you ever seen or read “A Christmas Carol”? It’s terrifying. Same thing with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That is a scary story.
It starts with a guy about to kill himself, and in comes divine intervention and says, “OK, well, you shouldn’t do that. And by the way, here’s what the universe would look like if you’d never existed.” It’s horrifying. I just feel like we’re just carrying that baton further. Obviously, we’re going for a bit more zany and intensity. We definitely are a monster movie. But at its heart it’s a very dark fairy/morality tale.
You spoke about how “Krampus” is a morality tale for children. It’s PG-13; it’s still very scary. But can you talk about shifting from R (with “Trick ‘r Treat”) to PG-13 horror?
It’s interesting. There’s definitely been a bit of hubbub about the PG-13 rating, and I get it. I think a lot of fans are right: Most PG-13 horror sucks, because it gets really watered down and really safe. But there is a lot really good PG-13 horror out there. The movies we were inspired by were PG or PG-13, “Gremlins” and “Poltergeist” being two of the biggest examples. We just wanted to make a movie that pushed the envelope for what’s appropriate for a PG-13 rating. But we also wanted to make something that kids and families could go to. It doesn’t make sense to do a completely balls out and bloody horror movie about Krampus because that’s not in keeping with the spirit of the character himself. Krampus was a fairy tale character created to scare children into behaving. You need to carry that spirit into the movie. You don’t see Krampus cards featuring him tearing peoples’ heads off and feasting on their guts or anything like that. They have a very dark mischievous sensibility.
“Krampus” opens Friday.
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