There’s something genuinely delightful about taking the cheery commercialized abundance of Christmas, and contrasting it with the darkest, creepiest things imaginable. From Gremlins to The Nightmare Before Christmas — even Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With the Devil” — there’s a tongue-in-cheek subversive thrill to the idea; a little bit of naughty when everyone’s supposed to be nice. Mining that most specific of veins is clearly what’s on the mind of Krampus, the latest film from writer-director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, X2).
The film is loosely based on the eponymous figure from German folklore, a sort of dark-mirror version of Santa Claus who, instead of bringing gifts and delights to good children, shows up with cloven feet and horns to drag the bad ones down into the underworld. Plop the figure into the middle of a suburban family Christmas, replete with bickering in-laws and dead-eyed cousins straight from Christmas Vacation, and it’s easy to see the opportunity for fun, satire, and some real holiday scares. They’re not actually there in Krampus, mind you, but you can certainly see the opportunity.
Dougherty starts things off in perfect fashion: a slow-motion Black Friday shopping rush, as shoppers claw, snarl, and tackle one another to get the maximum holiday savings they can find. It sets expectations in moments — this is going to be a story about how the good intentions of the holidays have been usurped — but Krampus drops the theme almost immediately. Instead, we meet Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette, virtually chemistry-free), who are having problems with their son Max (Chef’s Emjay Anthony), who gets into a fight in the middle of a school Christmas pageant. Max has the keen insight that many movie children do: he can tell his parents aren’t happy, and is frustrated that the holidays have lost the charm and wonder they had when he was a child.
There’s a kernel of a great idea there — rather than the cynical adult we’re used to seeing in movies like Elf, this time it’s a cynical child — and then Max’s extended family sweeps in, in all their caricatured glory. There’s comedic utility player David Koechner as Howard, the gun-totin’ conservative; his perpetually kow-towing wife Linda (Allison Tolman); and their four kids. Conchata Ferrell (Two and a Half Men) plays the obnoxious, booze-swilling Aunt Dorothy, who constantly clashes with everyone. Add in Adam Scott’s Tom, the stressed-out dad who just can’t pull himself away from work to enjoy time with his family, and you have a roll call of types pulled from every generic holiday movie ever made. Austrian actress Krista Stadler provides the only curveball, as Tom’s mom, Omi, who seems to have grave concerns about the coming holiday season. It turns out she is right: after a nasty family blow-out, a mysterious blizzard traps everybody in the house without power, at which point they realize a supernatural creature waits in the snow, ready to pick them off one by one.
There’s some general handwaving around just why an ancient yuletide ghoul is suddenly showing up at the family’s doorstep — it has something to do with Max tearing up a letter to Santa — but it’s all thin justification to get to what Krampus is really interested in, and that’s monsters, make-up effects, and zany scares. Dougherty’s love for ‘80s horror films is well known, and here he’s able to conjure up all the creepy dolls and grizzly demons he can come up with as Krampus and his elves descend. Weta Workshop led the charge with the puppets and practical effects, and these attack sequences — particularly a showdown in the attic between the family and a host of demonic toys — are filled with a rambunctious energy that’s hard for any genre fan to resist.
Dougherty’s love for ‘80s horror films is well known
But despite that exuberance, there’s a sense of clockwork execution — of story elements lining up and falling into place — that’s missing, and it’s absence is felt more acutely with every scene. Vital characters like Max nearly disappear; other superfluous characters lurk with no clear reason for even being in the movie; story beats are set up, but never pay off. By the time Koechner is being attacked by a trio of giggling gingerbread cookies with a nail gun, it’s impossible to avoid thinking of horror-comedy classics like Evil Dead — even Ash vs. Evil Dead — and wondering how the same zany set-up would play in the assured hands of a Sam Raimi.
Krampus feels like a movie in crisis, stuck between lampooning the holiday movies it’s riffing on and embracing them with earnest, open arms. The film certainly barrels toward its conclusion with conviction, and there’s an attempt to end things on a pat note of "Family is what it’s really all about!" — a sentiment that could be quietly hilarious, given the carnage that’s preceded it — but by that point, the film has already missed the opportunity to decide what it wants to be. The moment plays as just one more perfunctory story beat on the way to the movie’s welcome conclusion, capping a Christmas horror-comedy that feels strangely joyless.
Stuck between mocking and embracing the holiday movies it's riffing on
When I first heard of Krampus, it sounded like a bonkers project that couldn’t possibly work. Strange name; strange villain; even stranger concept. But while I clearly have issues with the movie hitting theaters tomorrow, I am convinced there’s a fairly devilish story to be told here. One in which our hero grows disillusioned with the holiday season, but after being menaced by a holiday demon realizes that the people in his life — as crazy as dysfunctional as they may be at times — are the very reason life is worth living. It would be perfect for a reboot. Or another remake of A Christmas Carol.
Krampus opens on December 4th.