Listen to your grandma
Before the Halloween-themed horror film Trick ‘r Treat achieved cult status in 2007 with audiences, its filmmaker, Michael Dougherty, only had a few credits contributing to blockbuster material like Superman Returns or X2. Now a well-regarded name in the horror community, the writer/director/producer returns to the same genre with his newest effort—choosing a different holiday for its subject. In conjunction with the Christmastime of year, Krampus dared to debut in the middle of Oscar-bait releases and the über-blockbuster called Star Wars, and still saw a modest financial return from viewers who wanted a kitschy change-up to the typical slate of December movies. The film’s title derives from the legendary beast of Alpine folklore, a monstrous, demonic antithesis to Santa Claus/ St. Nicholas. While Dougherty’s newest film begins with a sharp indictment of society’s consumerist approach to the holiday season, it quickly loses its edge and morphs into an amusing horror-comedy that would find even more fans if it had secured an R-rating.
Krampus opens with interior shots of retail stores while shoppers fight, kick, and bite each other without a measure of shame or even a second thought as “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” plays over the chaos. Even a few shots of the retail employees surviving their present misery make it into the montage. Clearly Dougherty established from the beginning that more people than just the family in his movie deserve a visit from Krampus. After these upsetting images, the camera settles on a scuffle in a mall as some parents break up a fight during a children’s Christmas musical. The camera follows these parents home where we learn their son, Max (Emjay Anthony—Chef, It’s Complicated) started the fight to shut a bully up who wanted to spoil Christmas for younger kids. Max then quickly becomes the protagonist of Krampus as the Grandma-caring, Christmas-adoring sweetheart who just wants his cynical family to enjoy each other’s company during the holidays. Max’s family, however, aren’t as warm to the idea and end up disillusioning the boy to a point where he condemns Christmas, subsequently summoning Krampus.
Dougherty cast a lot of heavyweight talent around Anthony to make the best film possible. Adam Scott (Black Mass, “Parks and Recreation”) plays Max’s father—a loving family man despite his devotion to his job as well as drinking to “survive” his wife’s family. Academy Award-nominee Toni Collette (“Hostages,” The Way, Way Back) is Max’s mother who also loves her family, but is simply too busy manufacturing Christmas to really take the time to talk to anyone and enjoy the true spirit of the season. These parents aren’t arguing or on the edge of divorce, but they hardly interact unless they have to solve a problem. Max’s family isn’t awful, they’ve just forgotten what made Christmas special for them.
David Koechner (Anchorman 2, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) shows up as the right-wing, gun-toting, Hummer-driving Uncle Howard, who has serious issues with his children and their identities—specifically related to gender. Koechner takes it delightfully over-the-top and relishes playing a character audiences know all-too-well. For a script that mocks gun enthusiasts, more than a couple bullets fly to really confuse the message Krampus tries to convey. Allison Tolman (“Fargo,” The Gift) appears as Linda—sister to Max’s mother and wife of Uncle Howard. Tolman doesn’t get a chance to shine here like she did in the first season of “Fargo,” but still does everything in her power that script allows to make her character more interesting. Linda resides more in the “quiet dignity and grace” category as her husband can’t seem to stop talking, specifically, “A shepherd protects his flock.” Conchata Ferrell (“Two and a Half Men,” Frankenweenie) plays the family’s Aunt Dorothy, employing rude, crude, and loud phrases with her character at most times.
Most interesting about Krampus, is something Dougherty brought up in an interview for USA Today. In it, he likens his latest picture to traditional Christmas narratives “A Christmas Carol” and It’s A Wonderful Life because of “…broken characters who experience a darker side of divine intervention. They need to be scared straight.” This statement certainly validates the implementation of horror in a holiday-themed movie, but the message ultimately disappears sometime between the introduction of a Jack-in-the-Box from Hell and a lackluster ending. Max and his grandma provide an ideal emotional core, but there’s so much going on among the principle cast that it gets lost in the jokes and frights.
The opening indictment of consumerism quickly loses its edge as the film tries to transition from documentary to comedy to horror. One never knows exactly what movie they’re watching with Krampus, as the film uneasily shifts between comedy and horror—often cutting away right before an f-word is heard as if to let the audience know the film had full intentions of shooting with an R-rating in mind. Instead, the final product is a PG-13 Christmas horror with comedic moments and editing that implies a gory, potty-mouthed film was originally intended to please viewers who thought they were in for Dougherty’s Christmas version of Trick ‘r Treat. The jokes are there, but the thrills serve to simply startle as opposed to shrieking in terror.