Director: Michael Dougherty
Cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Emjay Anthony, Conchata Ferrell, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Maverick Flack
MPAA Rating: (for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 12/4/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 4, 2015
Santa Claus' evil counterpart terrorizes a rough Christmas get-together in Krampus, a creepy and quirky comedy that is mischievous without ever becoming mean-spirited. It comes close, mind you, but that's not necessarily a detriment here.
The movie walks a fine line between the cheerfully demented and the nasty, but it stays on the right side by possessing a sense of humor about itself and a surprising amount of sympathy for even a few of its more stereotypical characters. Co-writer/director Michael Dougherty finds a mournful through line that centers on the loss of childhood idealism within the movie's tale of wicked creatures trying to drag an unhappy family into the underworld. It's a lot for the movie to carry, so it's not surprising that it feels as if some things get dropped along the way.
It's difficult to play material and characters as jokes, only to later insist that we take those elements with a relatively considerable degree of seriousness. Dougherty nearly pulls off the trick, but there might be one or two too many shifts between these tones—of comedy, of terror, of sentimentality—for the movie to hold up as a whole.
Max (Emjay Anthony) still believes in Santa, despite his age and the mocking of his classmates. He has even written a letter to old St. Nicholas, which is fine by his father Tom (Adam Scott) and especially his paternal grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler), who still believes in the man at the North Pole herself.
In the days leading up to Christmas, Max's extended family comes to his house for a visit. His sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) would rather be with her boyfriend. Max's mother Sarah (Toni Collette) wants everything to be perfect, but Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her politically conservative husband Howard (David Koechner), and their odd children don't make things any easier when they bring Sarah and Linda's hyper-critical Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) along for the visit. The dinner conversation goes from guns to disapproval of Sarah's fancy cooking to old-fashioned anti-Semitism with barely a blink between topics.
The last straw for Max is when his cousins Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel) steal his letter to Santa, read it at the dinner table, and make him uncomfortable for actually wishing for happiness for everyone in his family but himself. Tom tries to explain the complexity of family to his son, but Max tears up his letter and throws it out the window.
As the pieces swirl toward the sky, a storm forms above the house, and the neighborhood is suddenly faced with a blizzard. Also, a few grimacing snowmen appear on the front lawn, and there's some kind of giant, horned and hooved thing leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the area and leaving behind sinister gifts.
It's Krampus, we eventually learn in a stop-motion-animated flashback to Omi's childhood in an almost Expressionistic version of a dreary, shadowy Germany. Dougherty may let the movie's tone get away from him in the big picture, but there's no denying that his aesthetic control is strong. The flashback sequence stands out, obviously, but there's also the way the director and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin transform the bright, idealistic suburban home with its holiday cheer into a blue-tinted shell of itself, where steps on the rooftop become pounding, foundation-shaking omens of evil creatures on the march.
Anyway, Krampus is the spirit of folklore that punishes children who have lost the spirit of Christmas ("It's not what you do," Omi explains through the lens of German Lutheran tradition; "it's what you believe"). Max has lost it, and Krampus is after his family.
There's a pleasant twisting of expectations in the way the antagonistic relationship between the extended family becomes solidified under pressure. Dougherty and co-screenwriters Todd Casey and Zach Shields turn the initially off-putting aunt, who is overly competitive with her sister, and uncle, who can't stand anyone who might be slightly liberal, into far more sympathetic figures through bigger details (the way Howard comes to admire Tom's survival skills, despite mocking him earlier for being an Eagle Scout) and smaller ones (the way Linda has wrapped her children's Christmas presents in newspaper).
It sets us up with just enough care for these characters that we're not actively hoping for some terrible thing to befall them once Krampus and his minions get to work in the third act. The monsters, by the way, are twisted creations that seem like something out of a storybook that would guarantee to give kids nightmares. Working to together to nab the family members one by one for some mysterious fate, there are carnivorous gingerbread men, a big jack-in-the-box with rows of sharp teeth in its triangular jaw, a pointy angel figurine, and elves wearing elongated skeletal masks. Krampus is an appropriately hideous thing when we get a good look at it.
The movie's virtues are self-evident: It's amusing, creepy, and heartwarming where it needs to be. Something about Krampus, though, is off in a way that's difficult to pinpoint. It might just be the problem of such wildly divergent moods playing together in a harmony that's a half-note flat or the way the movie drastically shifts between them as the story requires. Whatever the doubt about it may be, the movie is an admirable attempt to inject some menace into the holidays that falls short.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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