For those unfamiliar with the Krampus legend, the horned beast is a character from Germanic folklore who represents the dark side of the Christmas holiday: while Santa rewards the good kids, Krampus punishes the bad, ladling out punishment with birchen rods and burlap sacks. And if the children are especially naughty, he drags them straight to hell. Historically, Krampus has always been more popular overseas than in the US, but in the last few years, America has begun to get in on the fun.
Krampus has become something of a trend, and now he's inspired his first major studio film, Michael Dougherty's spirited horror-comedy, "Krampus." The script, co-written by Dougherty, Todd Casey, and Zach Shields (a Rochester-native), uses the Christmas classic "Gremlins" as its most obvious touchstone, delivering holiday horrors with seasonally cheerful glee. The film begins with an upper-middle class family -- Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette), their son, Max (Emjay Anthony), and daughter, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) -- as they prepare for Christmas and the annual visit from Sarah's sister and her uncouth, redneck, gun-toting family. Pulling up to the house in a Hummer is Linda and Howard (Allison Tolman and David Koechner), their awful children (Maverick Flack, Queenie Samuel, and Lolo Owen), and crabby Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), just for good measure.
Max is at that age when it's a little awkward that he still believes in Santa Claus, but believe he does, and his cousins give him hell for it. After a chaotic dinner and some particularly harsh teasing from his cousins, he rips up his letter to Santa and tosses it out the window. Almost immediately, a winter storm descends on their town, knocking out power and isolating the entire family in their home, forcing them to hunker down together to wait it out. But when Beth disappears, things go from bad to worse, and Max's wise old grandmother, Omi (Austrian actress Krista Stadler) recognizes the signs that the family's lack of Christmas spirit has summoned Krampus.
Dougherty's last film was the modern classic Halloween anthology film, "Trick 'r Treat," and as a director he's got a great handle on tone. He's got a talent for effortlessly melding horror with the more heartfelt sentiment of the holiday, and that's the key to this film's success. As Krampus unleashes his demonic minions on the family, they face malevolent gingerbread men, dark elves, and sinister toys, all building up to an encounter with the big guy himself.
Brought to life by Weta Workshop, the creature design is fantastic, I only wished we got to see more of them. The monsters' attack sequences suffer a bit from over-editing (possibly a symptom of budget constraints), but with such great, often practical effects, it would have been nice to have more time to properly appreciate the work. The sound design is also particularly effective, conjuring up enough chilly, wintery atmosphere that you half expect to find a snow storm still raging once you step outside the theater.
Most crucial, as ridiculous as its premise gets, "Krampus" always plays the situation completely straight. Like most Christmas movies, it's all about the characters learning to appreciate the true spirit of the holiday -- it just happens through some rather ferocious methods. The film gets a number of laughs from the characters' own incredulity at the circumstances they've found themselves in (Adam Scott's impeccable deadpan reactions are a treasure), but the traditional humor could have been sharper. The families are drawn with broad strokes, and the film pokes some fun at them using some easy red state versus blue state humor; Howard and his brood get teased for being gun nuts, but of course, once shit starts to go down, those guns come in mighty handy.
While "Krampus" works to avoid coming across as campy, it's never particularly scary either. A couple months back, I praised "Goosebumps" for being a good introduction to horror films for younger viewers, and "Krampus" often feels like the progressive step up from that film; the horror is much more intense, while still keeping things at a bloodless PG-13 level. There's no actual onscreen deaths, with family members disappearing one-by-one, almost "Willy Wonka" style.
As a longtime fan of the Krampus legend, there's no way I wasn't going to at least have fun at a movie like "Krampus" (plus, any film that manages to work in a killer "Calvin and Hobbes" reference is aces in my book). Whatever faults it may have, "Krampus" has definitely got a distinctive personality, which is more than you can say for most of the anonymously-directed horror films released into theaters each year. It's rare to see something this offbeat and weird get released by a major studio, and it's bound to become a holiday staple for those with an appreciation for the dark side of the holidays.