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.