Krampus Director Michael Dougherty On Why You Better Watch Out This Christmas

In 2007, director Michael Dougherty served up a basketful of cinematic candy when his debut, Trick ‘r Treat — a creepy, scary love letter to the true spirit of Halloween — lit up horror film festivals. Delighted audiences announced that a new master of horror had been born. But the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., shelved the film for two years which just made its legend grow even more. When it  was finally released in 2010 — on a limited basis — the general public wasn't disappointed, and many people added the film to their Halloween watch lists.

It took eight long years, but Dougherty has finally returned with his second feature film, Krampus, which explores the dark origins of the Christmas season. It opens Friday in Denver.

Dougherty’s tone is his first film was both comic and pitch black. For instance, it featured scenes in which children get offed just as menacingly as the adults (perhaps that's what made the distributor jittery) but what good's a horror film if you can’t scare everyone with it? So there’s a tinsel's worth of concern for Krampus, which introduces us to an extended American family stressed to the limit with the pains of the holiday season, a family that is surprised when folklore’s original Santa comes to lay judgement on them.

Krampus has a talented cast — including faves Toni Collette, Adam Scott and David Koechner — and is being released less than a year after it was finished. That's a relief for Dougherty fans who are thirsty for another taste of the filmmaker’s mischievous storytelling, especially if it is hidden deep in a glass of some eggnog like a warm splash of rum. We talked to Dougherty last week about Christmas spirit(s), his favorite holiday horror tales and if we’ll be hearing another Halloween knock from Sam someday soon.

Westword: Merry Christmas! So, how does it feel to have your new movie opening so soon after you finished it?

Michael Dougherty: (laughs) It is definitely a roller coaster ride but I’m just grateful that it is getting released and I’m definitely looking forward to everyone getting to see it.

How did production on Krampus seem in comparison to the one you experienced on Trick ‘r Treat?

It was a massive contrast, compared to the process on Trick ‘r Treat, because it was filled with more unknowns, in terms of all the surrounding factors of finishing the film, pouring your heart and soul into it and then being forced to sit and wait for two years while we tried to find out if it was going to be released or not. So with Krampus, it’s the exact opposite: it got made quickly, the whole production and post production was a quick ride and then the release. Trick ‘r Treat also took a long time to get made; the script was written in 2001 but we didn’t shoot it until 2006. Krampus we finished a draft in December of 2013, we were shooting it in 2014 and then a release this year. So it was pretty much 1-2-3.

Do you have a lot of confidence in this, your second feature, after the amount of hoops you had to jump through to get your first one done?

It’s always an emotional roller coaster ride. You vary between confidence and utter despair (laughs), I mean that in all the best ways because at the core there is always a lot of faith and belief in it, it’s just that when you get this close to something - and you pour this much of yourself in it - it’s hard to remain objective. There comes a point that you just have to let go of it and just wait for reactions to come in and maybe help you clarify where you end up standing emotionally with it (laughs). That’s just a really nice way of saying that I hope people like it.

Well, I’m very excited to see it, especially as a fan of your debut.

Thank you, that’s great and I think that it’s very similar. Tonally and stylistically, they’re both in the same wheelhouse. It’s hard because everyone always wants to dip things in specific genres and Trick ‘r Treat danced between horror and dark comedy and Krampus does the same thing.
Trick R Treat was a such a love letter to the spirit of Halloween, so is Krampus a love letter to Christmas or do you, like most people, hate the holidays?

It’s different, with Halloween it’s pure love. It’s such an unpretentious holiday and everyone gets creative and weird and fun and loses all pretense of what’s normal or expected. And then Christmas… I’m an idealist and an optimist and for me Christmas always felt like it was hiding something because of the fact that it didn’t have Halloween’s same vivacious atmosphere or tone. With Christmas, everything’s always supposed to be either cheery or bright and uplifting and something always felt false about that. I did a little bit of research and I found out that the way Christmas is truly meant to be celebrated and where it came from is different from what we have today. The over commercialization, all the stuff we complain about with the pressure of the holidays, that’s not what it was really designed for but it’s what we’ve collectively been willing to put up with and accept, despite the mass hysteria that it creates with the pressure of buying gifts and receiving gifts plus seeing family.

I think at its core it’s really a time for us to slow down, put down the phones, spend time with people we care about and for thinking of your fellow man. It’s those very simple notions but we’ve dressed it up with commercialization. It truly started as a Pagan celebration that was very similar to Halloween and really, they butted up against each other and in some traditions the holiday season really starts on November 1 and it lasted much longer. The Pagans acknowledged that it was the darkest time of the year and a frightening time, when we didn’t have crops and it was freezing, and so all of the lights and candles and greenery and colors were meant to sort off ward off evil spirits and danger but there was a sense of mystery and magic and even eeriness that Christmas used to have and that I was excited to try and bring those back.

Where did your desire to tell a modern Krampus story come from?

In doing the research of the history of Christmas we found out that it did start as a Pagan celebration that was essentially co-opted by Christianity and turned into Christmas. The figurehead at the center of the celebrations was Krampus and there are some theories that he even pre-dates Santa Claus, which would make sense that if he was tied into the original winter solstice celebrations then he is the original Santa. What we’ve tried to do with the film is to let Krampus represent old Christmas and what the holiday was meant to be.

I view Krampus as Christmas’ Batman to Santa’s Superman. I mean, Superman is great — he’ll rescue kittens out of trees and always does what’s right — but Batman is the guy who will go in and kick ass when he needs to because Superman’s not willing to do that. It’s tricky because some people are horrified that we made this kind of movie about this kind of figure but truthfully if you really love Christmas you have to love Christmas as a whole, you can’t just carve out a “bright cheery Christmas” because that’s a very modern interpretation of Christmas. If you really love the holiday you should do your homework and embrace Krampus with it because he’s just meant to be a an enforcer of the holiday.

Even in my memory of my youth, the whole “You better watch out”, “Naughty or nice” thing brings up such a dark side to the holiday.

It does! I was always weirded out thinking back to when I was a kid, that parents were willing to essentially psychologically torture their kids that they were being watched by a supernatural figure who sees them when they’re awake or asleep, you know how the song goes! They’re willing to lie to children to tell them that there’s this strange old man who lives in a barren, remote part of the world that has a whole factory full of creepy little elfish helpers and he’s the one who gets to decide if they’ve been bad or good. I mean, it’s messed up! (laughs) To me Krampus is just sort of the same holiday boogeyman but without the false cheer lauded on top of it.
You brought a really great cast together for Trick ‘r Treat, tell us a little bit about working with the new cast on Krampus — Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, et al — was this a dream team to work with?

It really was. To this day I wake up and I can’t believe that we got the people that we got but I think it was a fun challenge to find actors who could easily go back and forth between the horror and the comedy and the drama, and these guys do it so well. I mean, it’s in their resumes, like Toni Collette, obviously, with The Sixth Sense and having Little Miss Sunshine and just an amazing variety of roles under her. But the same thing with Adam Scott, and Allison Tolman, and David Koechner or even Conchata Ferrell, they’re just very diverse and they can sell the horror, they can sell the comedy really easily but they’re just great actors, period.

A key thing for me is that there’s a golden rule that I have if you’re making a horror film or science fiction or anything else of the genre, if you had to take out all of the genre stuff - your monsters, your aliens, your robots whatever - are you left with enough characters and a good enough story that you’d still care? Poltergeist is one of my all time favorite films and if the ghosts never invaded that movie, I’d be okay with just watching that as a suburban dramedy because those characters are fantastic. We really wanted to find actors who could really pull that feat off because the first fifteen minutes of Krampus are just a straight up Christmas film, there’s no horror, and I wanted to find actors that could live up to that rule. That if the horror movie never started, and the kid never tore up his letter to Santa Claus and lost his spirit and we just had to make this a straight Christmas film, then these actors could kill it. They’d do great.

So do you mind sharing with us your five favorite holiday horror films and why you love them?

Sure! So first is A Christmas Carol, I mean truthfully any of the screen adaptations, I really thought that Zemeckis’ version was really scary in all the right ways, but the classic versions too. And I just love to bring that story up when people react strangely to our making a scary Christmas film and I like to say “But have you seen A Christmas Carol? It’s terrifying! It’s a ghost movie and a waking nightmare.”
And then I think another modern adaptation of that is It’s A Wonderful Life, again, that is a messed up movie!

It starts with a guy who is ready to kill himself and then he gets a dose of divine intervention but even that divine intervention is really dark. That’s tough love. I don’t care how nice that angel seemed but he plunges that guy into another waking nightmare where he’s shown what life would be like without him. That’s morbid! To me those are two very big inspirations for Krampus. Again you have characters that are flawed and broken and not feeling the spirit of the holiday who are then made to by supernatural forces. And then on the more fun side you have Gremlins, obviously that has sort of become a more modern holiday horror classic.
Trailers for your film give me lots of Gremlins vibes which I’m really excited about!

That’s the tone that I think has been missing from movies for a really long time is that delicate balance between the scares and laughter with the juxtaposition of Christmas with creepy mayhem. And then so after Gremlins there’s Rare Exports, which if you haven’t seen, you need to see that one. Oh and the original Black Christmas. Scared the crap out of me as a kid, though that’s more on the slasher side of things but still! What’s funny about that film is that (director) Bob Clark made that movie and then went on to do A Christmas Story afterwards! (laughs) Now there’s a guy who clearly loves the holiday but he’s willing to shake things up on different levels.

So, if you can leave your fans a little Christmas present to open early this holiday, can you tell us what’s going on with Trick ‘r Treat 2?

Ahh, the eternal question! Well, now that I’ve unleashed Krampus upon the world I’m hoping to turn my attention back to Sam and Halloween but I can only really give birth to one ancient Pagan holiday demon at a time. Basically I think that my life is going to be Christmas or Halloween from here on out and that’s not a bad thing!

Are you going to sneak in some other twisted holiday films in your future too?

I keep joking about Passover. I mean, it doesn’t matter what holiday it is there is always some weird, dark origin story to it all. The tagline would basically be: “The angel of death is back!”
Ha! Do you have a script done for Trick ‘r Treat 2, or what can you talk about?

No, there’s no script yet, just a rough outline at this point but we put out a comic book this year to sort of hopefully, um, keep people occupied for a little bit and it's great because it expands the mythology and the canon a little bit more.

Well, here’s hoping we’ll get to see it pretty soon after you finish it this time!

Yeah, me too!

Krampus opens Friday, December 4 at theaters all over Denver just in time to deck your halls with something scary. Visit fandango.com to find theaters and showtimes.

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