The latest film from 41-year-old director Michael Dougherty, Krampus, has just about everything: jokes about extended families, the typical drunk and/or tawdry avuncular sort, a strangely portrayed recollection done through animation, and of course, “St. Nicholas’s Shadow,” the evil and ghastly “Krampus.”
Where Dougherty succeeds is bringing to life the titular character, a creature from Alpine folklore called Krampus. At times, he is rightly terrifying — especially in an early scene with Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) — and at other times, his minions just do his dirty work for him. Altogether, Krampus is an imposing figure on the screen, and you may catch yourself curling your lip in surprise/disgust at him at least once throughout the 98-minute running time.
But here’s where “two worlds” don’t combine: the comedy and the horror. Dougherty, who co-wrote the script with Todd Casey and Zach Shields, gives the film a lighter, airier sense throughout the whole first act, and well into the second when Krampus’s indignant gingerbread men show up. The film opens in a slow-mo scene where shoppers trample a store employee to get bargains on what appears to be Black Friday. Then, just minutes later, at Sarah’s (Toni Collette) house, Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) shows up; and she puts Krampus over the edge — or toward the wormhole to the underground, as Krampus would prefer. The shameless Aunt Dorothy brings comedic relief for Adam Scott’s stern character Tom, and initially it’s a welcomed addition. But her sass, coupled with the main character’s — Tom and Sarah’s son, Max (Emjay Anthony) — innocence and purity, just doesn’t mesh well on the screen.
And we haven’t even gotten to the little gremlins yet. When Krampus arrives — basically armed with the gingerbread man from Shrek, a mutant jack-in-the-box that resembles Jabba the Hutt, and elves that look like the Persian soldiers from 300 — he decides to destroy everything in his path. But with all of these factors to consider, it’s hard to take him seriously. The only person in the film we want to wholeheartedly trust is “Omi” (Krista Stadler), but her character is cliche-ridden and feckless, aside from her elucidation of the demonic beast.
Here’s something to consider: While Krampus is fun at times (especially Koechner and Ferrell), it doesn’t really know what sort of film it wants to be. It blends genres, but it’s only effective insofar as loosely connecting dots. The narrative is too disparate, and at odds with itself. The overall impression is that the film is almost a farce. Sure, there is a positive message embedded in it, which is something for children to glean, but the parable is not enough to guide it. Krampus is banal and at times tiresome; but the final 10 minutes does have something to offer. Here, a whole new world is conjured up (well, his world), and right when you think the film is about to come to a light, feathery ending (in the realm of Polar Express, or It’s a Wonderful Life), Dougherty offers up a fun twist.
The actual narrative of Krampus begins only after the strange but moderately funny opening sequence in the warehouse store. Sarah’s (Collette) family, Howard (Koechner) and Linda (Allison Tolman) arrive for a three-day stay over the Christmas holiday. With them comes their strange children who wrestle and bully Max (Anthony). One of the kids resembles Augustus Gloop from Tim Burton’s 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
As opposed to his cousins, Max still believes in Santa Claus, and at the behest of his grandma, Omi (Stadler), he writes his Christmas list for the North Pole (although his handwriting resembles a 6-year-old’s). But when his cousins anger him, he rips up the letter and lets the pieces fly out into the cold night. As he does this, he wishes that his family would just leave. And that’s all the coaxing Krampus needs to show up; well, he’s already had dealings with Omi, so it was bound to happen.
At first, Krampus leaves behind strange signs that something is awry: erroneous snowmen, a total whiteout (and brownout), etc. When finally the family (the patriarch is Scott’s character Tom) realizes there is no easy escape from these shenanigans, it’s too late; Krampus has his foot in the door. As Omi points out, Krampus — a strange creature with giant hooves and goat horns, as well as a fur coat and white beard (with a widely ajar mouth) — only comes to fulfill a fervid and fleeting wish; he will make sure families to not sink so low as to forget the meaning of Christmas. Omi recounts her encounter with Krampus in the days before she immigrated, and this is done in a somewhat beguiling animated montage.
As Krampus bears down on Tom’s house, Uncle Howard assures everyone that “a shepherd must protect his flock.” He tries to do so with an impressive shotgun and a handgun he has in his Hummer. What will Sarah and company, and Uncle Howard and his clan, do about this unwanted guest?
What ensues is neat for the mythos of Christmas, but it’s no award-winning effort.
Regarding production values, Krampus is mostly intriguing. Douglas Pipes’s music infuses the film with a necessary gloom in the closing 35 minutes or so, and Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography coincides well with Dougherty’s imagined creatures. There is a fun sequence in the last 10 minutes for which O’Loughlin shows her chops.
This is not going to be a holiday classic, but it just may get a quasi cult following. (It has the makings of a Christmastime horror guilty pleasure.)
Do not fret…Krampus can always help out with some familial issues. If you want to get his attention, just write a Christmas list, get upset with the numbskulls around you, rip up said Christmas list, and make a wish you’ll come to regret…
Krampus opens in theaters on December 4.
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