Michael Dougherty’s Krampus begins with a stampede at a mall set to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. These are the Black Friday throw downs we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. In some ways, it is scarier and more amusing that what follows for the rest of the film. That said, this anti-Christmas tale is not without its occasional charms and pleasingly out there moments.
For those unfamiliar, Krampus is a centuries old European legend (you can Google) of a ghoulish monster that preys on families who’ve lost their faith in Santa Claus. The yuppie suburbanite Engel family (led by parents Adam Scott and Toni Collette) has almost attained that status, with their young son Max (Emjay Anthony) being the holdout. That changes when their relatives come to visit – they’re a not so well to do clan that consists of David Koechner (think Cousin Eddie with more firearms), his wife and their four children. There’s also aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), whose solution to the non family fun consists of plenty of Schnapps to keep warm and slightly zoned out.
Speaking of warm, when an out of the blue blizzard hits, the house loses power and connection to the outside world. Adam Scott’s mother called Omi (an effectively creepy Krista Stadler) makes certain a constant hot fire is burning and it’s not just to keep the group comfrotable and aunt Dorothy even more toasted. She knows the story of Krampus first hand and that backstory is relayed in a nifty stop motion animation sequence and she’s trying to keep the anti-Claus from coming down the chimney for more than milk and cookies.
Krampus has his set of little helpers to wreak havoc on the family and this allows for gingerbread menaces and more. It also allows for some knowingly chintzy CG effects and some genuinely impressive ones, too. The title character does look pretty imposing. In fact, when we move into the third act, I really wanted to hang out with him a little more.
Dougherty is known most for his screenplays for superhero tales like X2 and Superman Returns. This is his second directorial feature after 2007’s Trick ‘r’ Treat, a Halloween themed horror anthology which became a cult favorite. That also had some demented and funny moments and was a little overrated in some circles. Krampus may attain that same status. The PG-13 vibe is actually welcome here and this does often feel like it could have been made 30 years ago when that rating was churning out similar genre titles like Gremlins or Critters. It’s a picture when a swear word (spoken by our kid protagonist) feels pleasingly well placed and kind of retro cool.
Yet I can’t deny that Krampus isn’t too frightening and that some of the hoped for laughs grow tiresome. It has plenty of spirit, but never attains the level of Xmas horror classic that it wishes to be. Dougherty has now done two fright fests built around the holidays to moderate success. Perhaps his Arbor or Columbus Day take will be that third charm.
**1/2 (out of four)