The new holiday-themed horror-comedy, Krampus, is a fun romp bridging the horrors of Halloween with the enchantments of Christmas. It’s similar in spirit to The Nightmare Before Christmas, except much, much darker.
The film starts off hilariously, as Bing Crosby’s version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” plays over scenes of Black Friday mayhem. The comedy continues throughout the film; even when it gets horrific, someone will pop out a one-liner or a simple character note that lightens the scares. In this way, it’s also reminiscent of other horror/comedy hybrids such as Gremlins and Slither.
A few days before Christmas, Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) is busy writing his letter to Santa while his mother, Sarah (Toni Collette) cooks and his Omi (grandmother) (Krista Stadler) bakes in preparation for the arrival of family. Max’s father, Tom (Adam Scott), is busy taking work calls even though he’s on vacation, and Sarah is stressed at the thought of being cooped up with her sister Linda (Allison Tolman of television’s Fargo‘s excellent first season), her sister’s boorish husband Howard (David Koechner), and their four children. Max and his older sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) aren’t thrilled at the prospect of hosting their less sophisticated cousins, either.
Once the brood arrives, it’s easy to see why Sarah needs anxiety medication to make it through the holidays; although Linda is nice enough, Howard is a blowhard invested in machismo and being “the shepherd” of his “flock,” and Linda’s three older children tend to bully their gentler counterparts. Not helping matters is Linda bringing along her and Sarah’s Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), a bitter piece of work who likes to drink and take potshots a—well, pretty much everyone.
Cousins Stevie and Jordan (Lolo Owen and Queenie Samuel, respectively) steal Max’s letter to Santa over dinner that night, reading its plaintive contents aloud in order to mock him. Turns out Max doesn’t want Transformers or other toys; he wants Christmas to be fun like it used to be, and for his family to be close as they had been in the past. Max is overcome with humiliation and states that he hates Christmas.
The next thing the family knows, a dreadful blizzard has iced over the entire neighborhood, and mysterious, strange-looking snowmen begin appearing on people’s lawns. The snowmen are reminiscent of those from the late, great comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, and are great fun to spot.
Also with the blizzard comes Krampus. Krampus is a mythological companion of Santa Claus, only he doesn’t bring presents; he brings pain and punishment. In folklore, Krampus can show up to punish naughty children by beating them with birch sticks, putting them in sacks and throwing them in the river, or dragging them to Hell. As described by Omi, this version shows up when people have given up all belief in Christmas and hope in the goodness of man, and teaches everyone a lesson, usually leaving behind one person as a reminder.
Krampus has helpers as well, including some nasty-looking elves and rather terrifying toys filled with teeth. Krampus himself is a great horned, hairy beast with cloven hooves befitting his demonic persona. As the monsters begin to attack the family, the family must band together to save themselves and their Christmas.
Krampus is really funny, but not as scary as it could have been, given the demonic nature of the monsters and the threat of doom in a fiery Hellpit. There’s a few jump scares, but nothing truly unsettling or nightmare-inducing. Well, kids might be frightened of the evil Jack-in-the-Box and the other toothsome monster toys; the practical effects mixed in with the CGI does make the monsters and Krampus seem much more real (although not so much with the Dark Elves, which didn’t scare but did delight me).
The acting is good across the board; everyone’s game for what director Michael Dougherty (2007’s Trick ‘r Treat) throws at them, and they play their characters seriously, making the funny bits even funnier. Dougherty has a sure hand and a good eye for framing shots, in particular a shot of the very-tall Krampus looking down at Max. The ending is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations and quite possibly a sequel. There’s no extra scene within or after the credits for those who like to hang out for possible Easter eggs, so unless you’re a credits junkie like I am, you can leave once the action ends.
In the end, Krampus is a lot of fun, but not very scary or bloody, which is to be expected of a PG-13 flick. Most of the kids in the screening I was at seemed to handle it all well, as did the adults. If you like humor in your horror mixed with a dash of yuletide cheer, Krampus is the picture for you.
Krampus is in theaters as of December 4, 2015