Krampus June 6, 2016
It’s difficult to take 2015’s Krampus seriously as a horror comedy because it doesn’t take its horror nor its comedy very seriously either. It rides on a far-flung concept but isn’t willing to take the risks necessary to make its unbelievability fly; its humor is obvious when it should be self-referential and campy, and its horror is safe and romantically thrilling when it should be grotesquely immodest.
As it most closely resembles the classically trashy (but classically delicious) films of Joe Dante (if I’m the first critic to bring his name up in respect to the movie, then I’m Ron Jeremy’s father), we come with a pre-readied thirst for a simultaneously savage and lovable vermeer best exemplified by Piranha and Gremlins, B-movie treats which have managed to retain their schlocky luminosity because of their tactile senses of sense and because of their refusal to take themselves seriously.
Krampus'd be better if it were more willing to take on the approaches of those aforementioned minor masterpieces. So dotty is its concepts, it’d be proper for the sum of its parts to be as bonkers as its narrative. But it plays it straight, avoids off-the-rails fearsomeness to avoid an R-rating (a shame), and utilizes a cop-out of an ending that renders everything coming before it as colorless. It was born to be edgy, but settles for dandy comfortability that washes away any prospects for mold breaking.
It begins with promise. Taking place during the holiday season, it has all the makings of an excellent familial drama: illustrated is the coming together of a disconnected family, related through sisters Sarah (Toni Collette) and Linda (Allison Tolman).
This year, festivities are being held at Sarah’s home, which is nice, suburban, and fitting for a picturesque feast. Her side of the family is the more well-adjusted — her husband (Adam Scott) is a workaholic, and her kids, Max (Emjay Anthony) and Beth (Stefania Owen) are typical teenagers who, at the very least, have good manners. So Linda, in part to her trailer park existence, is the black sheep of the clan. With a loud-mouthed spouse (Dave Koechner), a barrage of rude children, and a live-in aunt (Conchata Ferrell) straight out of any shindig’s nightmare, Christmas has become an uncomfortable time for all. These relatives, much as they’d like, cannot possibly get along.
Things erupt when one of Linda’s bratty kids snatches Max’s letter to Santa (they deride him for remaining a believer at his age) and reads it aloud to the dinner table. Since his sentences are fraught with private perceptions better to be kept secret, the tension between the group escalates to such a feverish high that the boy announces that he hates everyone in the house. It’s melodramatic and untrue, sure, but it sets celebration into a tailspin. Frustrated with his family’s lacking of Christmas spirit, Max unapologetically rips up his letter and throws it into the wintry night sky.
Such is a bad decision, considering the genre in which Max is living. The next morning, a fantastical response seems to have made way: all power is out, a heavy blizzard is terrorizing the landscape, the neighborhood seems to be deserted, and there’s a strange feeling that an outside force is watching the family’s every move. Inexplicable events begin peppering the atmosphere. And, as it turns out, the spooky ambience is no coincidence — according to the family’s German matriarch, Omi (Krista Stadler), they are in the beginning stages of a deadly attack by Krampus, a reverse Santa (who takes the form of a half-goat, half-human) who drags any family who has lost their Christmas spirit into hell. Her parents suffered the same fate during her childhood. Krampus is coming back for the same reasons.
So because he’s a rancorous beast who wants nothing more than to continue his nightmarish traditions, he has demonic helper after demonic helper lined up to do the majority of his dirty work, prompting the film’s protagonists to go to great lengths to ensure survival. But when you’ve got someone as experienced in his terrorization as Krampus, boozy confidence and a couple of guns might not do much good.
And while the film does boast a bevy of ingenious scare tactics (the family, most of which is comprised of respectable actors, is forced to fight some fairly ridiculous monsters, and their straight-faces is something to admire), Krampus never reaches the ruthless heights I’d like it to — it’s more Goosebumps than it is H.P. Lovecraft, which is fine if you’re looking for something passably scary instead of bone-chilling. But when Joe Dante comparisons proliferate, one expects more than horror comedy without the sharpness to be substantial. It’s still better than most modern horror fare, and is definitively more inventive. But that doesn’t mean it’s as altogether untamed as it could be. C+