Krampus isn't as clever or scary as Christmas horror/comedies past, but provides enough kitschy fun for those craving a darker holiday yarn.
Krampus picks up a couple days before Christmas, as a family and their relatives all gather for the annual Yuletide celebration. However, young Max (Emjay Anthony) struggles to keep his spirits up and his faith in the wintertime holiday alive while the members of his dysfunctional family clash around him - and following an altercation with his cousins where he's mocked for still believing in Santa Claus, Max gives up on his beliefs altogether. In doing so, though, Max unwittingly summons Krampus: the ancient demonic force that seeks to punish those who turn their back on the Christmas holiday season.
Krampus thereafter unleashes a relentless blizzard on Max's neighborhood, as he and his minions start picking off the locals (and, eventually, Max's family), one by one. Max and his relatives are thus forced to put their differences aside and band together - if they are to survive the holidays (literally).
Co-written and directed by Michael Dougherty (co-writer of X2: X-Men United and Superman Returns), Krampus could be viewed as a spiritual followup to Dougherty's cult horror movie Trick 'r Treat, as both put creepy supernatural twists on different holidays. However, Krampus is a horror/comedy in the vein of Gremlins rather than a horror/thriller, as it blends satirical humor critiquing the unpleasant elements of the Christmas holiday in modern times with a spooky story - one about a group of cynics who must be scared straight into remembering what the holidays are really about.
Krampus, which Dougherty co-scripted with Todd Casey (Batman: The Brave and the Bold) and Zach Shields (a relative newcomer), takes shots at the mindless consumerism and the crass artificiality plaguing the Christmas season, though the satire is rather ham-fisted and quickly abandoned in favor of focusing on the twisted redemption story for Max's family. While Krampus' main narrative manages to blend dark humor and pathos in a competent fashion, it lacks the wit and poignancy that Christmas films past have offered - with their respective non-sugar coated examinations of what families are like when they gather together during the holidays (think Christmas Vacation) or must learn to appreciate one another (a la Home Alone). Thematically, Krampus doesn't break new ground either, though it does make up for that by delivering more in the way of demented holiday anti-cheer (call it Gremlins-lite in that regard).
Uneven character development also limits Krampus, when it comes to the film's efforts to smoothly mix horror/comedy conventions with sincere drama elements. The adult characters in the movie - including Max's upper middle-class parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), as well as their lower-class in-laws, Linda (Allison Tolman) and Howard (David Koechner) - start out as stereotypes, but gain additional layers over the course of the narrative. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their kids, who tend to be played for cheap laughs and largely exist to serve as potential victims for Krampus and his minions to pick off. Even Max, who is essentially the film's protagonist, is pushed to the side by the adults' plot threads until the third act, once Krampus arrives in town.
Krampus benefits from having creative monster designs, which are brought to life through an effective combination of practical creature effects (like puppetry) and CGI provided by Weta Workshop and Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit). Dougherty and his filmmaking team, including cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin (Sanctum) and production designer Jules Cook (Chappie), rely on both careful camera work and lighting - as well as the blizzard unleashed by Krampus - to further produce a number of fun horror/fantasy visuals, even while working from a relatively limited budget ($15 million). That being said, when the monsters aren't attacking, it becomes more apparent that Krampus is a lower-cost and mostly single-setting romp.
The darkly-quirky nature of Krampus' minions, which put monstrous twists on Christmas icons (old-fashioned jack-in-the-boxes, Christmas elves, and so on), gives rise to more laughs than scares, in part because the movie's horror sequences are generally routine in their structure and execution. Dougherty and his team do find creative ways of staging the action at times, through smart minimalist filmmaking techniques or the occasional flourish - specifically, with an animated sequence that covers a character's backstory. Krampus frequently attempts to prompt both shrieks and laughs from the audience, but has more success getting the latter than the former.
While the humans are less entertaining than Krampus and his gang, the former characters are elevated by being brought to life by capable character actors like Scott (Parks and Recreation), Collette (Enough Said), Koechner (Anchorman), Tolman (Fargo), and youngster Emjay Anthony (Chef) as Max. The same goes for costars Conchata Ferrell (Two and a Half Men) and the Austrian film veteran Krista Stadler as, in turn, outspoken Aunt Dorothy and wise Grandma Omi in the film. As mentioned before, though, the other young cast members - like Stefanie LaVie Owen (The Carrie Diaries) and the relative newcomer Maverick Flack - never evolve beyond two-dimensional archetypes who are menaced by Krampus (and picked on by the movie, too).
Krampus seems unlikely to follow in Trick 'r Treat's footsteps and become a cult hit among horror fans, namely because the film works best as a dark comedy that features imaginative monsters, rather than a spooky cautionary tale about losing sight of what really matters and embracing cynicism in the face of the winter holidays. That being said, there's certainly an audience out there who should find the film to be their cup of tea, as Christmas approaches. Indeed, Krampus isn't as clever or scary as Christmas horror/comedies past, but provides enough kitschy fun for those craving a darker holiday yarn.
Krampus is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 98 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material.
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