Twisting the festive joy of Christmas into something sinister never ceases to tickle the shriveled hearts of weirdo cynics like myself. Sure, most folks like their holiday entertainment dripping with sap and shining with sentiment, but others are only satisfied when jingle bells are wrung with explosions or dismemberment. For those who fall into the latter camp, ‘Krampus’ is a delightful holiday romp that should quickly worm its way into the X-mas viewing rotation.
The movie probably tries to be a few too many things and would have benefitted from R rating leniency. At the same time, the fact that a holiday horror flick executed on this scale and with this much style made it through the studio system is an absolute delight.
The movie kicks off wonderfully with a slow-motion Black Friday trampling and riot set to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” instantly establishing the tongue-in-cheek tone that co-writer/director Michael Dougherty continues throughout. Emjay Anthony stars as Max, one of those plucky young kids who loves Christmas so much that he’s willing to get in a fistfight over it. His family, on the other hand, struggle to keep their festive feelings pumping thanks to good old-fashioned dysfunction.
Dad Tom is played by Adam Scott with all the sarcastic dismissiveness that implies, while mom Sarah is Toni Collette stressed out in that special way only the holidays can provide. The stress thickens when Sarah’s sister (Allison Tolman) and her gun-toting husband (David Koechner) arrive with their bratty kids and a requisite alcoholic whiny aunt (Conchata Ferrell). The arguments and insults that define most awkward family Christmases kick off in such rousing fashion that Max loses his love of the holiday, requiring a visit from good old Krampus to set things straight.
Yes, it’s that sweetheart holiday demon from ye olden days that has become a figure of ever-increasing pop culture fascination in recent years. Dougherty doesn’t dive too deeply into the strange and varied Krampus mythology. Instead, he sticks to the basics with a layer of mystery. His Krampus is an evil deity that arrives to punish those who have lost the Christmas spirit, as explained in an amusing creepy stop-motion origin that twists those old holiday TV specials into something nightmarish. That’s essentially Dougherty’s approach to the film in a nutshell. Despite the supernatural horror trappings, ‘Krampus’ is an oddly traditional Christmas movie. The message is similar to any number of holiday entertainments, just delivered in a comedic monster romp. That’s a good thing.
Much like Dougherty’s admittedly superior Halloween horror flick ‘Trick r’ Treat‘, the film feels like a live action cartoon when it’s kicking. The director has a skill with visuals, both in terms of film grammar and his monster designs. Krampus and his helpers (which are monster perversions of popular Christmas icons too good to spoil here) are gorgeously creepy to behold and mostly created through puppetry. The filmmakers’ primary influences are clearly the creepier versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and Joe Dante’s sick holiday joke ‘Gremlins’. He doesn’t quite reach the haunting depths of the former or the manic heights of the latter, but the film’s entertainment value is through the roof, so it’s hard to complain.
The monster movie moments are provided through old-timey latex slapstick. They’re creepy yet funny and safe. The family dramedy is played in sarcastic comedic tones with some wonderful deadpan performances and fantastic foul-mouthed child dialogue. This feel like a long lost Krampus movie from the ’80s VHS horror heyday in the best possible sense.
It’s not a perfect movie, however. The budgetary demands for the holiday horror fantasy that Dougherty had in mind slapped the picture with a PG-13 rating. It fits the family horror tone, but the big scare scenes feel a little held back, particularly when compared to the far naughtier fun of ‘Trick r’ Treat’. Likewise, the finale might leave horror fans feeling somewhat cheated as Krampus ultimately plays more like a Christmas movie than a genre effort.
Thankfully, the demerits are minor. Michael Dougherty and his team of effects wizards and overqualified comedic actors have delivered some B-movie bliss in ‘Krampus’. It’s an imaginative romp that should help slide a generation of youngsters towards genre fandom much like ‘Gremlins’ did many moons ago. It’s nice to have one would-be Hollywood holiday classic come along this year that actually has replay potential. The fact that it involves the world’s most beloved Christmas demon is the bloody icing on the gingerbread house.