I get the sense that ‘Krampus” was pitched to a studio executive as “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” crossed with “Gremlins” because “Krampus” was clearly inspired by both of those films. Striving for the screwball familial dysfunction of the former and the go-for-broke, Looney Tunes-style mayhem of the latter, “Krampus” never quite lives up to the promise of its appealingly strange concept. Neither as scary nor as funny as its premise would imply, “Krampus” is the kind of film Tim Burton would make if he was a leather jacket with a hand-painted picture of Edward Scissorhands on its back. It’s all store-bought Hot Topic brand nihilism and whimsy. It’s a bore.
“Krampus” opens with a sequence that critics have unanimously praised. Depicting an atypically brutal Black Friday-induced retail riot, the scene is shot in slo-mo and set to strains of Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to look a Lot like Christmas.”
What critics have forgotten is that a similar scene was used to better effect in the universally despised “Jingle All the Way.” Another film that was terrible but, to it’s credit, the fun kind of terrible. The kind of terrible where Arnold Schwarzenegger punches a reindeer in the face and Sinbad smiles a lot and strangles old women. At any rate, even though it’s really on the nose, the opening implies a level of joyful cynicism the rest of the movie can’t match. From there we’re introduced to the victims/vaguely defined strawmen that populate this movie.
A workaholic dad (Adam Scott); neurotic pill-popping mom (Toni Collette); a pissy, displeased wise-cracking teen (Stefania LaVie Owen) and a boy who – jeepers — loves Christmas so much that he’ll build a blimp and fight any jerk who cracks wise at ol’ Santa (Emjay Anthony)! Additionally, David Koechner and “Fargo’s” Allison Tolman play visiting relatives who are basically Cousin Eddie and his redneck brood after whatever it was that made these characters funny slipped away into the gutter along with the contents of that ‘full shitter’ from “Christmas Vacation.”
Of course, as any scientist will tell you, a foodfight is imminent whenever a snob is placed within close proximity of a slob, and as the mash potatoes fly, Anthony renounces Christmas and cuts all ties to Santa Claus. Unfortunately, this dangerous lack of Christmas spirit causes Santa’s Teutonic traveling companion Krampus to arise once again and punish those who refuse to believe in the magic of that special day when mail isn’t delivered and only Chinese restaurants are open. The power of Christ(mas) compels you!
Director/co-writer Michael Dougherty is probably best known for helming “Trick R Treat,” a film that developed a cult following mostly because it caught people by surprise by being not nearly as bad as they expected. It wasn’t good as much as it was ‘good enough.’ “Krampus” represents a bit of a sophomore slump for Dougherty. Bad rather than passably entertaining, “Krampus” can’t quite make its mind up about what it’s supposed to be. Is it scary? If that’s the case, why do the sound of slide-whistles accompany most of the attacks and why are mischievous gingerbread men causing family-friendly, “Alvin and the Chipmunks”-style mayhem? Is it supposed to be funny? If so, why did Dougherty force his cast of overqualified comedic actors to treat this material with the kind of undue gravitas usually reserved for films like “Hotel Rwanda?” The snappy patter in this film should be in league with, if not “Ghostbusters” then at least “Ghostbusters II.” It’s all very tonally awkward. At one point a Rankin-Bass meets German Expressionism stop motion sequence insinuates itself into the film and it feels completely out place. Almost as if it was edited in from some dour, unfinished “ParaNorman” sequel. On the plus side, Krampus (who wears a Santa mask, that I believe is actually the face of a long dead St. Nick) and the rest of the anti-Christmas fun bunch (such as the boa constrictor-like Jack in the Box and the army of elves and their creepy wooden masks) are ingeniously devised, beautifully imagined practical effects that are, unfortunately, used in a frustratingly spare manner.
From start to finish, “Krampus” is a missed opportunity. If you really need to sit through an enjoyably dark Christmas movie ignore “Krampus” and sit through “Gremlins” one more time. Or better yet, just put on a Santa hat and push “It Follows” to the front of on your Netflix queue.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Stefania LaVie Owen and Emjay Anthony
Director: Michael Dougherty
Weekender Rating: WW