A dreary lump of coal, Krampus is a horror movie with the just-in-time-for-the-holidays message that if you have a bad attitude about being trapped in a house with objectively awful relatives on Christmas, demonic creatures will drag your entire family to a snowy doom. Loosely inspired by the Germanic legend of Krampus, a devilish horned anti-Santa who punishes bad children, writer-director Michael Dougherty has a broad, overlit Christmas comedy darkened and invaded by malevolent critters and supernatural beasties who pick off an extended family one by one. His previous film was 2009’s Halloween-set horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat, so he knows his way around bending holiday iconography to horror ends. Of course Christmas imagery is more incongruous when put to that purpose, with sleigh bells and hoof-steps up on the housetop creating an ominous foreboding instead of the delight of reindeer paws. I’m all for a Christmas horror movie, but this one’s chintzy and half-baked, not nice, and not naughty enough either.
It starts with thin stereotypes stretched to mildly routine satire about commercialism and losing the spirit of the season. After a slow-motion brawl in a big box store over the opening credits – set to a cheery carol, an obvious juxtaposition, but worth a smile – we meet a harried family busy preparing for holiday guests. A workaholic father (Adam Scott), perfectionist mother (Toni Collette), and cynical teenage sister (Stefania LaVie Owen), have little time to indulge young Max (Emjay Anthony) and his childlike whimsy, namely his lingering belief in Santa. It gets worse when boorish overnight guests descend, an uncle (David Koechner), aunt (Allison Tolman), great aunt (Conchata Ferrell), and cousins (a pack of funny young newcomers), each one rude, uncouth, loud, and mean. Not even a sweet German grandmother (Krista Stadler) can keep belief in pure Christmas magic alive when these branches of the family tree collide.
The formulation of these characters is so scattershot and obvious no one is worth caring about, let alone believing. The guests are rough-and-tumble, gun-toting, bullying dopes. Their hosts are not much better: distracted, snobby, bitter, elitist, and judgmental. Unfair extremes painted in ugly colors, everyone acts more like political cartoons than real people. And why do they put up with each other? “Because we’re family,” dopey dad tells little Max, who later secretly, tearfully rips up his letter to Santa and throws it out the window. There, the cold winds convert his negative energy, a wish to be rid of annoying relatives (totally understandable), into a massive blizzard that knocks out the power and snows everyone in. The better to be attacked by Krampus and his evil elves, naturally. It can’t come fast enough.
But the film proceeds in fits and starts. Characters wander away and disappear. Everyone is worried for a moment, formulating rescue plans, troubleshooting how best to escape. Then we’re on to the next attack, token worry for the missing (mostly kids!) immediately followed with batten-down-the-hatches, load-the-weapons strategizing and monster smashing. The problem is that these crass bad-sitcom types react like they know they’re suddenly in a horror movie, and not even in a jokey meta or savvy genre way. The instant the action starts – snowmen mysteriously appear in the front yard, a girl disappears, a snowdrift gets bitey, etcetera – they’re hammering wood over the windows and ready to fight off invaders. And don’t even get me started on the grandma, who knows exactly what’s happening from the jump and waits way too long before she clues the rest in on the details. The tension is largely non-existent, mostly because their troubles never seem all that serious.
Dougherty clearly has a lot of fun tweaking Christmas movie tropes with monster movie jolts. The creative creature effects – largely convincing and tactile things – are the clear star here. There are impish gingerbread men, a pack of creepy elves with unmoving mask-faces, malicious toys, and a drooling, fanged tree-topper angel. Krampus himself is merely suggested, before revealing his massive part-goat, part-devil, part-Santa design. My favorite, though, was a jack-in-the-box that starts small, but balloons to the size of an overstuffed anaconda with a clown face dripping an elongated alien jaw, all teeth and fleshy gullet. These monsters are so effectively visualized and imaginatively designed I wish Dougherty, with co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields, designed more compellingly staged sequences around them, or at least made me care about who they were attacking and why.
Besides, for its nasty streak and creature feature jabs, it’s too sugary sweet to commit to anything but an ending of family togetherness wrapped in false comfort. In other words, the movie simultaneously embraces and rejects holiday cynicism, thoroughly undoing any potential points of satiric interest and muddying its point of view. It ends up literally about nothing: a phony Christmas platitude wrapped in a weak B-movie twist. This would be an easier movie to recommend if the jokes were funny and the scares were scary. As is, it’s a great idea done half as well as I hoped. Imagine someone took the greatest holiday horror comedy, Joe Dante’s Gremlins, drained it of energy, then thoroughly defanged its filmmaking and perspective and you’re onto the sense of emptiness I felt in every scene of Krampus.