Michael Dougherty’s holiday horror fest Krampus opens on a cynical note and stays there for 90 minutes, bless its cold and frozen heart. In a slow-motion, up-close grace usually reserved for Spartan armies, a seemingly endless, decidedly merciless horde of Black Friday shoppers trample a hapless employee of “Mucho Mart” to the strains of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” Scenes of frantic, cutthroat holiday shopping culminate in a fist fight during a live Nativity scene. Season’s greetings!
That’s just a prologue for the dysfunctional Christmas cheer to follow. One of the people involved in the manger melee is young Max (Emjay Anthony), who takes the holiday very seriously, certainly more seriously than his parents (Toni Colette and Adam Scott) or extended family do. Dismayed and disillusioned after his jackass cousins mock his belief in Santa Claus, Max tears up his letter to the North Pole and throws the scraps outside. Almost immediately, a massive winter storm knocks out the power, traps the family in the house, and heralds the arrival of an ancient winter spirit. But as Max’s grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) informs the family, it is not the shining and benevolent Saint Nicholas, but his wicked, cloven-hoofed shadow counterpart known as Krampus.
Much like he did with his previous film, the Halloween-centered Trick ‘R Treat, Michael Dougherty has taken the dark side of holiday celebrations as his inspiration for an effective, entertaining, and often genuinely frightening horror film infused with equal parts dread and black comedy. Just as Trick ‘R Treat was an homage to pre-Comics Authority horror comics, Krampus is a love letter to the kinds of cheap but amusing Charles Band-directed genre films you would only ever find in the dusty corner of a video store in 1989. Unlike Trick ‘R Treat, however, Krampus doesn’t groan or creak under the weight of the countless tropes it dishes out.
Part of the film’s charm is that it never (if ever) takes itself too seriously. It’s very conscious of exactly what it is and isn’t afraid to show it. It wears its tropes on its sleeve, sometimes quite literally; there’s even a line of dialogue about an actual “noodle incident” at one point. It revels in its relatively small budget by keeping the setting efficiently but naturally contained and the monsters (which include both Krampus and his minions) mostly off-screen for most of the film.
This economy extends even to the narrative and character beats. Dougherty lays all the characters’ personalities down in the first act during the family dinner. Through a series of rapid-fire interactions, we’re told all we need to know about everybody and how they relate to everybody else. The plot takes place over the course a few days, but Dougherty keeps the action so immediate that it seems almost like the film is unfolding in real time. Aside from a few slack scenes of dialogue early on, there is nothing truly extraneous here. (Dougherty’s pacing has much improved over his previous film but still needs some work.)
The cast doesn’t slack on the job, though, even with the winking b-movie vibe laid down. Nobody does anything award-worthy, but neither does anybody phone their performance in. Toni Collette especially commits to her role, and her chemistry with Adam Scott feels genuine. Even better is the rapport between Max and his grandmother, reminiscent of the strong bond between the main characters of The Witches. Grandmother speaks only in German, aside from a flashback story where she describes meeting Krampus as a child, which is presented like a bizarro-world Rankin-Bass stop-animation special. Max doesn’t speak German, but he and his grandmother seem to communicate in a way beyond language, and their relationship is certainly the brightest and most emotionally arresting one in the entire film.
But this is still a horror film, and Dougherty more than delivers on that end, as well. While Krampus and his minions are terrifying enough on their own, what truly makes them stick in the psyche is the way that Dougherty very slowly unravels the reality of the family’s situation. The world outside the house seems to have been literally frozen in time, calling to mind the subtle, almost-real twists of a classic Stephen King story. When the third act arrives, Dougherty uncorks the bottle of nightmare fuel he’s been shaking, and all hell breaks loose. The monsters, barring one major exception, are all practical effects, giving the third-act descent a tactile and tangible look that is as unnerving as it is inscrutably absurd.
In many ways, Krampus is a worthy addition to a library of classic horror films. It’s tight, it’s entertaining, it’s frightening, and it’s even funny on purpose. But it works just as well as a winter holiday film. After all, the holidays is about bringing families together, and what draws a family together better than being menaced by an unrelenting demon from Alpine folklore? Nothing, that's what.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-