Back in the good old days (OK, the 1990s), movie theaters in Burlington still had late shows on Christmas Eve. One of my best movie-going experiences was seeing Scream at one of these near-empty pre-Yuletide screenings. Another December 24, I chose a VHS copy of The Ring over a midnight service.
It's not that I hate Christmas. I just find that the season's twinkling lights and good cheer could use a little leavening of terror. (Think of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come beckoning Scrooge to his grave.) So if there's an ideal audience for Krampus, a horror comedy about a Christmas demon, I am it. I just wish it stood as a more memorable entry in the minuscule Holly-Decked Evil genre.
Director-cowriter Michael Dougherty made the well-regarded (by horror fans) Halloween anthology Trick 'r Treat. But he takes a softer approach to this PG-13 tale of a kid who unwittingly summons a Christmas demon. The result lands in an uncomfortable netherworld between family film and fright flick — somewhere north of what used to be Tim Burton's sweet spot.
Young Max (Emjay Anthony) has been raised by his German-speaking grandma (Krista Stadler) to revere the Christmas spirit. But his affluent, overworked parents (Toni Collette and Adam Scott) are too busy bickering to feel it, and his downmarket cousins mock his letter to Santa.
Discouraged, the boy crumples and tosses his missive, only to wake the next morning to a holiday hellscape. Snowy gloom blankets the neighborhood, and the family soon discovers that sharp-toothed monsters — parodies of Christmas icons — lurk under the drifts, up the chimney, even inside the wrapped gifts.
Those monsters — by far the film's most inventive element — are henchmen of the demon Krampus. In Alpine folklore, he's the one who puts lumps of coal in bad children's stockings; here, we're told that he punishes whole communities for losing the Christmas spirit.
This indiscriminate slaughter seems a bit excessive, but the film never fully embraces the perversity of its conceit. Instead, it milks humor from the culture clash between Max's family and their tacky relations — including David Koechner as a gun-toting paterfamilias — and stages scene after scene of not particularly scary violence. While it's fun to watch people defend themselves against murderous elves and gingerbread men, Dougherty presents these attacks so chaotically that they eventually become a blur.
Lacking fleshed-out, original characters or a solid satirical point of view, Krampus settles for evoking Joe Dante's Gremlins. But, unlike that twisted Christmas classic, it doesn't have a strong protagonist in Max, and it fails to make the liminal space between cute and nasty its own.
To the very last shot, Krampus seems confused about what it is: a heart-warming story of a family bonded by the true spirit of the season (and the murder of animate toys); or a black comedy about fools whose cherished idols are actually bloodthirsty, Lovecraftian monsters. (The movie's Krampus mythology, supplied by Grandma in a creepy animated sequence, leaves room for interpretation as Manichean Christianity or something a lot darker.) Busy covering multiple marketing quadrants, the film never lives up to the wicked promise of its opening sequence: a slow-motion montage of Black Friday commercialist carnage ironically scored to the serene seasonal strains of Bing Crosby.
If you want to see a film that goes full-bore with the "evil Santa" concept, watch the Dutch Saint Nick — which, while uneven, offers genuinely nightmarish scenes of the title character stuffing children in his sack and lugging them up the chimney. But if you're one of the strange few who seek out something to scare them in this time of holly-jolliness, Krampus isn't it.