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In “Krampus,” writer-director Michael Dougherty is obviously aiming for the sweet spot merging dark humor with Christmas joy and snarky horror that Joe Dante managed so memorably in “Gremlins,” and if he doesn’t hit the bull’s-eye, he at least comes within range. His transposition of a Germanic legend about an horned anti-Santa who punishes naughty children—or in this case, invades homes with a maliciously destructive crew to punish those who’ve lost the holiday spirit—to an American suburban setting may not work overall, but it boasts some grimly clever yuletide ghoulishness along the way, even if it’s nowhere near as scary as dreck like “Christmas With the Kranks”–a family that really deserved a visit from him.

It opens with a nifty credits sequence that announces Dougherty’s subversive intentions by juxtaposing Bing Crosby’s perennial “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” with slow-mo footage of what appears to be Black Friday mayhem at a big-box department store. It then switches to the home of adolescent Max (adorable Emjay Anthony), who might have just gotten into an on-stage brawl at his school’s Christmas pageant but still believes in Santa Claus and wants an old-fashioned family celebration although his parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are on edge, with him still making business calls and her obsessing over dinner preparations, while older sis Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) would prefer spending time with her boyfriend. Only Tom’s cookie-baking, German-speaking mother Omi (Krista Stadler) appears to be in the proper mood.

The arrival of Max’s obnoxious cousins (Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen and Queenie Samuel), along with their buffoonish right-wing father Howard (David Koechner) and Sarah’s sister, his nervous wife Linda (Allison Tolman), makes matters even worse. Not only do the kids belittle Max (and Howard disparage Tom), but unexpectedly tagging along with them is Sarah and Linda’s hard-drinking, mean-tongued Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). When one of Max’s cousins reads his embarrassing letter to Santa in front of everybody, he rips it up and angrily denounces them all, apparently inviting Krampus to take action.

What follows is a terrible blizzard that knocks out the power and brings terror to the town as the monster and its minions apparently trash house after house and leave them vacant. It’s not long before Max’s family comes under siege even as Tom and Howard venture outdoors to search for Beth, who’s gone missing on a trek to visit her boyfriend—and become the first of the bunch to encounter Krampus. The initial intrusions, in fact, target the kids before moving on to the adults. Within the cascade of confrontations that occur, most are just raucous and visually rather muddled (the fact that they mostly happen in the dark, whether inside or out, doesn’t help), but some are wittily nasty, like an attack on blowhard Howard by some cackling gingerbread men armed with a nail gun. There’s also an evocative animated sequence in which Omi recalls how Krampus invaded her Alpine village one year—an episode that has a touch of the magic of “Coraline.”

As the Krampus crew’s malevolent antics escalate, matters grow not only more violent (though never gory), but also more arbitrary; and the increasingly explicit depiction of the supernatural characters undermines the effect. Having Krampus’ army of elves portrayed by what appear to be kids in porcelain masks doubtlessly kept down the special effects costs, for instance, but even with the efforts of cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin and editor John Axelrad to muddy the images, the result is blurrily unimpressive. And when Krampus is shown in his full form toward the close, it proves a far less chilling sight than when he makes his first appearance as a barely-glimpsed figure leaping from housetop to housetop in pursuit of Beth. In this instance, more is actually less.

Nonetheless “Krampus” remains head and shoulders above most genre entries on the technical side. Jules Cook’s production design exhibits some painterly qualities, especially in the outdoor scenes, and the art direction, supervised by Alistair Kay, is first-rate. The film’s look is nicely complemented by Douglas Pipes’ score, and the cast certainly give their all to the proceedings. Scott, Collette and Tolman are hardly challenged by anything demanded of them here, but Ferrell is obviously having a ball playing a boozy hag, Owen makes Beth genuinely likable, and Stadler hits the right mark as an old lady with a secret in her past. Surprisingly young Anthony, who was so charming in “Chef,” comes across a mite pallid here, but Koechner, who’s usually just insufferable, manages to add some touches of humanity top a character who might have been a mere buffoon.

The nerviness of the opening credits sequences returns at the movie’s close, which undercuts what appears to be a typically sugary holiday movie finale with some welcome sourness. If only the entirety of “Krampus” had managed a similar degree of inventiveness, it could have become a perennial. As it is, this more-naughty-than-nice bit of skewered holiday horror offers at most a sporadically amusing, but utterly ephemeral, dose of Christmas cheer.


The fairy-tale brother-and-sister pair who barely escaped that gingerbread house with their lives has grown up and is kicking some serious witch butt in “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” But that’s the only remotely serious thing in the silly, bombastic action extravaganza directed by Tommy Wirkola, whose previous picture “Dead Snow” was a slasher movie about a bunch of students stalked by Nazi zombies and is here working from a script he’s based on a premise not much more intelligent. It is, however, less brutal and bloody than “Snow”—and thus aimed at the adolescent trade.

It’s highly doubtful, however, that even the thirteen-year old boys who rejected previous attempts to turn old Grimm Brothers fables into twenty-first century adventures, like “Snow White and the Huntsman” or “Red Riding Hood,” will embrace such a goofy grab bag of computer-manipulated stunts, endless fights, creature effects and supposedly cheeky but definitely lame dialogue, especially as limply directed by Wirkola. Compared to the visual virtuosity and brash panache that Timur Bekmembetov brought to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” his work comes across as pedestrian.

As to plot, there isn’t much. After a prologue recounting the old story in ten minutes or so, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are re-introduced as twenty-something witch hunters boating lots of weapons and wearing duds that look like they might have been retrieved from the “Underworld” wardrobe department. They come to Augsburg, where a bunch of kids have been abducted, and after saving Mina (Pihla Viitala) from execution by the evil sheriff (Peter Stormare), they’re off to find out what’s afoot, assisted along the way by sweet-tempered lad Ben (Thomas Mann), who as quickly develops a crush on Gretel as Mina does on Hansel.

It turns out that the chief witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen) has abducted the children for use in a ritual, to be held on the night of the Blood Moon, that will also involve Gretel’s heart and result in her gaining some enormous power, though its nature isn’t entirely clear, at least not to this viewer. After what seems like an endless succession of battles between H&G and Muriel and her band of followers, everything winds up at a Witches’ Sabbath at which Hansel, Mina, Ben and a troll named Edward (Derek Mears, looking like a sallow version of Hellboy), wind up trying to rescue Gretel and the abducted children from Muriel and her band, using guns blessed with magic charms that blow the evil spawn of Satan to bits. It happens that Muriel’s plot is also connected with what happened to Hansel and Gretel’s parents (Thomas Scharff and Kathrin Kuehnel) many years before.

The movie is drearily repetitive, consisting mostly of battles in which the titular duo get tossed about by witches that they’re trying to capture before blowing them up somehow. Occasionally they get beaten up by the wicked sheriff too, though he meets with the obligatory gory fate as a result. There are, of course, periodic quieter interruptions in the action, especially involving Mina (who actually goes skinny-dipping with an injured Hansel) and Ben (who moons over the unconscious Gretel at one point). But the attempts at romance are half-hearted, and those that are meant to be humorous are even worse, mostly involving the inappropriate use of modern obscenities.

Perhaps things would have gone better were Renner less of a stolid stiff and if Arterton possessed any personality. As is it, however, they’re a dull pair. Mann has a boyish charm and Viitala is attractive, but they’re lost in the shuffle, and Janssen makes an unimpressive villainess, even when encased in gruesome makeup. She and her minions aren’t really much scarier than the trio of witches led by Bette Midler in the Disney bomb “Hocus Pocus,” which was of course a children’s comedy. The effects are frankly mediocre, with an overabundance of those tired “in your face” 3D moments, and the score by Atli Orvarsson (with an odd “supervisor” credit for Hans Zimmer, whatever that means) is loud and thoroughly forgettable.

It’s time this sub-genre of action fairy-tales was retired. It’s a hopeless cause, and filmmakers should just admit that and move on. As for the ending of “Hansel and Gretel,” which seems to suggest that the makers actually believe that it might become a franchise, one can only say that a sequel seems about as likely as “John Carter 2.”