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.