Halloween remains the big-gun holiday for setting and releasing horror films, but Christmas-themed tales of terror are likely a close second. Part of the appeal is simply staging mayhem against the most festive and selfless day of the year, but the holiday is also rich in cultural detail and legend offering filmmakers and audiences a far more textured canvas than the simplicity of masked killers can provide.
2010’s Rare Exports got the Krampus ball rolling, and a handful of straight to DVD features followed with titles like Krampus: The Christmas Devil, Krampus: The Reckoning, and Night of the Krampus. The mythical creature tasked with punishing the naughty among us broadened its cinematic reach with this year’s A Christmas Horror Story and will be seen next in Kevin Smith’s Anti-Claus, but in between those two is the creature’s biggest, most promising outing yet – and it’s from a filmmaker who knows a thing or two about holiday horror.
Max (Emjay Anthony) still clings to a belief in Santa Claus and the idea that wishes will be answered on Christmas day. Toys and other gifts are fine, but what he really wants is for his family to get along like they used to – he wants to spend more time with his moody teen sister, Beth, and for his parents (Adam Scott, Toni Collette) to rekindle their love for each other. Visiting relatives are their own special kind of nightmare, but he has hopes for them too including kind thoughts for his aunt (Allison Tolman), uncle (David Koechner), and their four kids. Max’s spirit is tested though when one of his cousins embarrasses him by reading his letter to Santa aloud, and in a fit of rage and sadness Max tears up the note and throws it to the wind.
It doesn’t reach Santa, but the letter finds an unintended recipient all the same and immediately Max’s house and neighborhood lose power and fall victim to an intense snow storm. Krampus, a giant, horned and humpbacked creature straight out of Germanic folklore arrives not to give presents but to take lives, and he’s brought an army of hideous holiday helpers to aid in the task. Trapped by the storm, the family is forced to fight back against both the uninvited guests and their dwindling holiday spirit.
Michael Dougherty’s last feature, Trick ‘r Treat, secured its place as a Halloween classic thanks to sharp writing, creative direction, and a fresh take on the horror anthology format, but his attempt at infusing Christmas with similar genre love lacks more than just an anthology structure. Less of a gift that keeps on giving, Krampus finds joy in fits and starts – when it works the monstrous holiday mayhem teases Gremlins-like levels of greatness, but when it doesn’t it reveals a film that ultimately feels rushed and not fully conceived.
It’s slow-going at first as the family is introduced with the mostly capable cast hampered somewhat by gags that don’t quite land and characters defined more by cliche than by actual character. Tolman and Koechner can play course, Middle America-types in their sleep, and the cousins are little more than one-note hicks with weight problems. Driving the point home is a great aunt (Conchata Ferrell) familiar to anyone who’s ever posted a liberal thought on Facebook.
Things pick up once the tinsel hits the fan as Dougherty (and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields) find menace in both the horrific and the innocuous. Terrifying snowmen that appear motionless but seem closer each time we look outside, gingerbread men cookies with opposable thumbs, and the nightmarish contents of a jack-in-the-box are just a few of the terrors on Krampus’ payroll, and with few exceptions they’re practical creations as opposed to all CG ones. Studio heads might disagree, but it’s tangible threats like these that scare and unsettle viewers most when done well. The Weta Workshop folks are behind the creatures here, and the results are creative, inventive, and in the case of that damn jack-in-the-box flat out terrifying. (Although I suspect the budget dried up before they figured out how to make Krampus’ mouth close.)
The visual treats extend to the production design overall as Dougherty works to create a world that shifts from familiar to isolated with a chilly, windswept ease. A white-out envelopes the neighborhood allowing only quick glances of mischievous movements and the silhouetted leaps of Krampus as he jumps from house to house. The film succeeds in blending the fantastical into a snow-draped suburbia, and both offer fun backdrops for energetic sequences and bizarre displays. A story told by the family’s German-born grandmother (Krista Stadler) is another standout thanks to artistic stop-motion animation.
One issue that begins as a nitpick but grows in annoyance due to its frequency is unsurprisingly (once again) character related. Family members only occasionally fight back – particularly in the film’s standout attic/kitchen sequences – but beyond that there rarely seems to be genuine concern for their own lives or the lives of others. A kid gets snatched, and no one appears that broken up about it. This happens more than once. Worse, time and again characters simply give up and accept their apparent fate. It feels as if the script was simply done with them and ready to move on, and it’s an attitude that pervades the film’s implied theme too – family is more important than political differences and Black Friday shopping! – as the inevitable third act “message” lands with all the effective nuance of a reindeer turd. The ending rushes towards the credits with a real disregard for the characters and our interests.
Krampus is at its best when the various creatures are doing their thing, but the human counterparts don’t fare nearly as well. That’s okay though… Krampus knows that they’ve been naughty.