Movie Review: Krampus
By Ben Gruchow
December 16, 2015
It’s not that Michael Dougherty’s second feature is any worse than his first one, 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat; it’s just as much of a gleefully adolescent Indian burn as that film was, and that quasi-moralistic campfire-story spirit is one of the most enjoyable things about both films. It doesn’t have quite the same visceral effect in the visual of its antagonist (Sam, the kid-shaped object from Treat, was a uniquely disquieting piece of imagery), and the PG-13 rating doesn’t allow Krampus the same punch as the previous film, but it still operates at the same level of smirking menace, and it has some fun with its concept. That may not quite function as an endorsement, but it’s a lot catchier than “it’s the best Christmas-set horror film since P2”, because there’s not many contenders for that title and I’m not sure anyone remembers P2 anyway.
Krampus takes its title from the Germanic mythological figure of the same name; it also takes much of its circumstance and rationale from it, which does give the movie a clearer sense of identity than Trick ‘r Treat’s anthology approach and ambiguously mythological antagonist. Krampus is described as the “shadow” of Santa Claus; he shows up at homes and comes down the chimney, but he arrives to punish naughty children rather than gift nice children (I am reminded of Emma Caulfield’s immortal line reading from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, on St. Nicholas being in fact real: “He didn’t always bring gifts, so much as disembowel children.”)
Before we’re introduced to Krampus himself, our subjects are a largish family of basic attributes (not even afforded a surname), all converging at a single house for the Christmas holidays. There are a good many family members, but the clear audience surrogates here are Tom (Adam Scott), Sarah (Toni Collette), and their son Max (Emjay Anthony). Tom’s German-native mother Omi (Krista Sadler) is an important character, but you can’t really call her a surrogate. Max is idealistic about the holiday, which is a bad match with the cynicism and social conflict on display from the rest of the family; think of a meaner and darker Griswold family Christmas and you’ll be in the right neighborhood.
During a particularly charged argument at dinner, Max’s Christmas list is read aloud and he is taunted for it; in anger, he tears up the letter and throws it outside to the winds. Barely has he then closed his bedroom window than a blizzard kicks up outside, all the neighbors disappear, and the power goes out. Other ominous things begin to happen: decidedly unhappy-looking snowmen begin to show up on their front lawn (a late overhead shot of this is one of the movie’s best visuals), and Omi solemnly lights a fire in the fireplace and reacts to each progressively more alarming development with the solemn hint of old knowledge. We get the feeling she knows more than she initially says, and the movie does not disappoint us.
Dougherty clearly loves working in this kind of sphere, both horrific and irreverent, and there are moments when Krampus leaps into deranged life. The initial stages of the blizzard, when nobody really knows yet what’s going on, have a nicely claustrophobic tone and feel to them. The initial staging of a seemingly innocuous Jack-in-the-Box has a gruesome payoff later on. There is a sequence involving tiny sentient gingerbread men that strikes the perfect balance between tension and comedy. And there is an animated flashback interlude that for once explains the background of the antagonist without sacrificing the unsettling nature of it (it’s a gorgeous piece of work, too, easily as evocative as the similar sequence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1).
The movie’s just not that good, is the thing. Not as a whole, at any rate. Those moments are just that, and the tics that work to the advantage of an anthology film show their seams when applied to a feature-length continuous narrative. There are character beats and shadings and subtleties that are set up, and I appreciated them, but there’s no room for any type of payoff. This isn’t meant to be a suspenseful and cathartic treatise about a fractured family coming together in the face of horror; it’s a 90-minute version of those short fables where everyone learns their lesson at the end, except nobody’s really likable here.
I can commend the movie for its playfulness, but it doesn’t leave a whole lot to latch onto at the end. And for all of the gruesome visuals and inventive design (when Krampus finally does show himself, he’s legitimately pretty unsettling - and since the movie beforehand hasn’t ever been particularly scary, you can’t apply the adage of the monster’s appearance neutering the horror), the movie is never really scary. Most of the would-be suspenseful sequences are set up for a dark-humor gag, and while that’s fun, it’s also a lark. It only plays well so many times.
Trophy winner among its meager kin or not, Krampus isn’t the type of movie that’s going to engender many converts; it’s made by and for those who want to go to a theater and see traditional holiday practices and locations subverted and refocused through the lens of goofy horror, rather than drama or comedy. It’s still impressive and heartening that Universal keeps giving riskier, more experimental horror projects like this adequate budgets and wide releases. They did it earlier this year with The Visit and Crimson Peak, and several years ago with Slither, Drag Me to Hell, and Coraline. There’s something to be said for that kind of investment, even if the resulting film ends up being rather problematic and disjointed.