Director: Mike Dougherty
Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Krampus is probably the movie I’ve most looked forward to all year. I love Christmas horror, I love Toni Collette, and after seeing Trick R Treat for the first time this Halloween, I had faith in director Mike Dougherty. But, as often happens in this tempestuous business of film, reality imposed a different outcome. Krampus is a huge, gold-wrapped present under the Christmas tree that, upon opening, turns out to be a clothes hamper It’s not a bad or pointless gift by any means, but it utterly fails to match up to the visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.
‘Twas the month before Christmas, and all through the blog, these terrible puns your eyeballs did clog.
Krampus tells the holly jolly tale of a family that has lost the Christmas spirit. Father Tom (Adam Scott) is too busy with work to pay attention, mother Sarah (Toni Collette) is stressed and dismissive, and daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) just wants to smoke pot out of a ludicrously festive peppermint bong with her loser boyfriend. Only their son Max (Emjay Anthony) and their German speaking grandmother (Krista Stadler) seem to even notice there’s a holiday going on. When their annoying relatives, who even Roald Dahl would denounce as hyperbolically vile, come to visit – led by gun-totin’ trailer trash Howard (David Koechner) – Max is mercilessly taunted and ends up destroying his letter to Santa, scattering it to the winds.
This act of treason upon the Spirit of Christmas summons Krampus, the dark shadow of Santa Claus, to dole out punishment and re-instill the holiday value of giving. But instead of Barbies and golf clubs that you’ll need to fake enthusiasm for, they’ll be giving something much more valuable… Their lives.
Well, Toni Collette’s character’s life I valuable at least. You can take or leave the rest of ‘em.
Krampus has a killer opening. Perhaps the best opening of any film this year. An opening that is so ironic, winking, and silly that the rest of the film has all but no choice but to fail to live up to it. But Krampus makes another critical error that it had a veritable ocean of opportunities to avoid: it’s working from a script that, at the very least, needed a couple passes before it was anywhere near complete. From a technical standpoint, the film is a gas, but at the script level it’s a Vegas casino: full of glitz and glamour with very little payoff.
The sheer amount of story elements that are introduced in the first act and never come up again (Eagle Scout survival training, creepy snowmen, a big honking meat cleaver) would have Chekhov swallowing the barrel of his gun. In short, it feels like it was made by a careless teenager, an enthusiastic kid who was too lustily excited by the thought of what he could create to stop and focus on why. There are brief swipes at emotional resonance, but they’re immature and ill thought-out, carried by archetypical characters as broad as the tree in Rockefeller Plaza.
Krampus is a blizzard. A flurry of totally unique, crystalline ideas (including my personal, consumerism-lampooning favorite: the plan to take refuge in a local mall) gets caught up in the furious gale, forming an indistinct rushing mass. It’s pretty to look at, but you don’t particularly want to get caught in it. However, for all that its individual snowflakes don’t stand out the way they should, it’s still a memorable experience.
How’s this metaphor going? I live in Southern California, so this is all hearsay.
For all that Krampus sublimely disappoints one’s expectations, there’s plenty of good that won’t come out. Design-wise, Krampus is an out-and-out masterpiece. Krampus’ hulking, cloaked figure cuts an imposing silhouette through the falling snow, and his helpers are frivolous exercises in nightmare fuel. Especially the fleshy, snakelike jack-in-the-box monster. That guy will be knocking on the door of my fragile psyche for weeks. But, you guessed it, despite their beautiful, feral forms, these creatures get very little to do. There’s just too damn many of them and the film has almost no idea what actual purpose they serve in the narrative.
Krampus bumbles wide-eyed through its own ideas like it’s Alice touring Wonderland. Even the film seems surprised when it stumbles across a patch of pure, fairy tale fright, like the glistening storybook town surrounding the snowbound house. In these moments, which are admittedly pretty frequent, we get a boost of adrenaline to drive us to the next sequence, whether it be an ass-kicking sister in law or an attack by mutant gingerbread men.
I apologize if my ample complaints have been misleading, because Krampus is very fun very much of the time. It’s a turn-your-brain-off good time, a Gremlins for the Twitter set. It’s just that the deficits of the film hit even harder considering the talent that was poured into it. Its unearned emotional beats and stunted character arcs don’t prevent it from being entertaining, but they do cut it off at the knees every time it makes the effort to be something more profound than its cheesy Christmas horror brethren like Silent, Night, Deadly Night.
Luckily, if you desperately want to see a Dougherty holiday flick that will knock your socks off, you’ve got Trick R Treat. And I do hope Krampus makes boatloads of money, but more for the sake of studio horror in general than any genuine devotion to the property, which I fully expected to be a gem. But a good time at the movies is a good time at the movies, even if it isn’t quite as grandly consequential as you’d planned.
TL;DR: Krampus is a fun Christmas horror flick that squanders its potential to be truly great.
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