Film Review: ‘Krampus’

Krampus
Courtesy of Legendary Pictures

Santa Claus isn't coming to town, but his sinister shadow is in this divertingly spooky Christmas thriller.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He’s got horns, hooves and an army of sinister elves, and his name sounds like a bad case of abdominal bloat. He is Krampus, the evil, twisted “shadow” of Santa Claus, and he has plenty of pain and destruction to rain down on one unlucky family that’s lost the Christmas spirit in this divertingly spooky lump of cinematic coal. Directed by Michael Dougherty with the same eye for lovingly detailed genre re-creation that shaped his 2009 indie-horror anthology, “Trick ’r Treat” (with 1984’s “Gremlins” as the obvious touchstone here), “Krampus” isn’t especially scary, but it generates goodwill nonetheless for treating its home-invasion-for-the-holidays setup with an appreciably straight face. While Yuletide horror movies haven’t set the box office on fire in recent years (“Black Christmas,” anyone?), Universal’s Dec. 4 release should enable word-of-mouth interest to build a steady winter following en route to home-format haunts.

Sensitive preteen Max (Emjay Anthony, “Chef”) is in for one lousy Christmas, from the moment his aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) and oafish uncle Howard (David Koechner) turn up on his doorstep with their tubby young hellspawn in tow (played by Maverick Flack, Queenie Samuel and Lolo Owen). Even worse, they’ve brought along their miserable old aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell, “Two and a Half Men”), who immediately starts complaining about the food and decor, to the chagrin of Max’s already stressed-out parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette). There’s some easy comic stereotyping going on here: Max and his family are a classy, educated, well-to-do and sympathetic bunch, while their obnoxious relatives are crass, slovenly, violent, and in love with football and guns. It doesn’t take long for tensions to flare on all sides and send Max running to his room, where, convinced that Christmas is ruined, he proceeds to rip up and throw away his handwritten letter to Santa.

Big mistake. A freak blizzard immediately sets in over the neighborhood, cutting off heat, electricity and phone/Internet access. Vaguely menacing-looking snowmen pop up in the yard, a delivery man turns up with some mysterious packages, and when Max’s older sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), decides to head over to visit her boyfriend, she never returns. But panic doesn’t really start to set in until Tom and Howard are mysteriously attacked outdoors by some freakish monstrosity that travels underground, Bugs Bunny-style, and tries to pull them under — at which point it becomes clear that something has gone very, very wrong indeed. Cue the requisite ironic rendition of “Silent Night” on the soundtrack, as Max and his family huddle together in the living room with the fire blazing merrily away, listening to weird crashes, scampering noises and impish laughter on the roof, and waiting for their predator to make himself known.

It falls to Max’s wise old grandmother, Omi (Austrian-born actress Krista Stadler, stealing every scene), to explain that these terrible happenings are the work of Krampus, a mythic, malevolent creature who comes not to reward the nice but to curse, punish and torture the naughty — or rather, those wee tots who have had their holiday joie de vivre choked out of them by the family from hell. Omi recalls her own childhood encounter with Krampus in a lovely, eerie animated sequence that roots the film’s mythology in a history of pre-Christian, German-speaking Alpine folklore. It’s unlikely that the ancestors who passed down those stories ever dreamed that Krampus’ minions would one day take the form of miniature gingerbread men running amok with a nail gun, or a hideous clown doll (shades of “It,” or perhaps Joe Dante’s “The Hole”) who turns one of Max’s relatives into an early Christmas dinner.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about the way Dougherty (who wrote the script with Todd Casey and Zach Shields) orchestrates the movie’s increasingly freakish and frenzied attacks in enclosed spaces, and his visual approach in these moments — shoving the camera in the actors’ faces while they do their best impression of Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” — seems rudimentary at best. But shooting with d.p. Jules O’Loughlin on a palette of gray, snow-choked exteriors and dim, firelit interiors, he conjures a palpable mood of abandonment and isolation, and of unseen terrors lying in wait, forcing family members who could barely stand each other minutes ago to become unexpected allies. (The class condescension melts away in due course, too: Those guns sure do come in handy.)

By the time the dread Krampus finally rears his horned, red-cloaked head, it’s clear Dougherty is treating his material with the utmost seriousness, sans winking or campiness, and with an atmosphere of grim relentlessness that seeps in like a winter chill. “Krampus” stays well within the relatively bloodless confines of PG-13 horror, but it’s precisely the opposite of family-friendly. The faux-reassuring final scenes may have you misting up as readily as “A Christmas Carol” or even “Home Alone,” but let’s just say you’d better watch out.

Film Review: ‘Krampus’

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Dec. 2, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production

A Universal release presented with Legendary Pictures, of a Legendary Pictures/Zam Pictures production. Produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia, Michael Dougherty. Executive producers, Daniel M. Stillman, Zach Shields. Co-producer, Todd Casey.

Crew

Directed by Michael Dougherty. Screenplay, Todd Casey, Dougherty, Zach Shields. Camera (color, widescreen, Arri Alexa digital), Jules O’Loughlin; editor, John Axelrad; music, Douglas Pipes; music supervisors, Peter Afterman, Margaret Yen; supervising art director, Alistair Kay; art directors, Joe Bleakley, Seth Kelly; set decorator, Daniel Birt; costume designer, Bob Buck; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Saville; sound designer, Karen Triest; re-recording mixers, Mark Paterson, Tony Lamberti; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Andrew Smith; senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri; executive visual effects producer, David Conley; visual effects, Weta Digital, Ghost VFX, Mokko Studios; stunt coordinator, Rodney Cook; associate producer, Pamela Harvey-White; assistant director, Guy Campbell; casting, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, Amanda Mackey.

With

Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler. (English, German dialogue)

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  1. Krampus has its cliches, but it is mostly such an authentic mix of Christmas and horror movie with great effects, solid characters, a nice flashback and a great message.

  2. Kellye says:

    Finally a critic who actually “gets” a movie. I saw it and was enormously entertained. Sometimes funny, dark and spooky without outright fear, but with a definite level of uneasiness. You think it will turn out alright and everyone will be safe because you don’t actually see any corpses. You watch it and liken it to other Christmas movies where the protagonist learns a lesson and earns happiness. If you expect that here then you missed the point, he come stop punish. When Krampus was called, their fate was set. This is not a feel-good family holiday movie where everything comes out hunky dory. This movie should have done much better but it was up against the two biggest movies of the year, Star wars and Mockingly 2, so it didn’t have a chance. For those who did see it, I hope they enjoyed the reality (vs false happiness) of other holiday tales, and enjoyed the “it doesn’t turn out alright” ending. Yes it is a B-movie, but a B-movie that embraces and fully develops its status, can be much better and longer remembered than an A movie that is only half-done. I hope Krampus becomes a cult classic like Gremlins, Tremors, Lake Placid, Phantasm and many others. Movies should not take themselves too seriously, they are after all meant to entertain and this one does it in spades.

  3. Conrad Scroggins says:

    After seeing this movie, I have to maintain that the Grandmother’s tale of when she was a young girl was really set in the ruins of a town in Germany or Austria in the aftermath of the bombing during the Second World War. To me, it looked like a child’s perspective with a child’s tendency to mythologize or see reality sometimes in supernatural terms. I say this because the Grandma’s age puts her squarely into that particular time & place. The Krampus myth itself obviously predates her story, but her story is self-referencing.

    As to the overall movie, it was pretty much what I expected. What do you want from a C or B grade Xmas horror comedy … or horrible comedy … or comedic horror story … oh hell, whatever.

  4. Oh, this movie was amazing. Glad I saw it Thursday night before any the reviews were really out. Crazy good.

  5. Bill B. says:

    Sounds pretty bad, but the trailer looked surprisingly promising.

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