Krampus is a movie that truly earns the “your mileage may vary” moniker. It’s an oddball premise in an even odder spot of the year. Crossing a recently popularized bit of Germanic lore with a horror film set in the holiday release season, there are a lot of ways this concept could have gone horribly wrong or horribly right. It never reaches the highs required to make it a cult classic (much less a classic), but avoids shrugging and going home without any effort either. The result is something that swerves back and forth across the centerline of the road, like your uncle heading home after far too much eggnog, resulting in some amusement, horror, and groans.
The movie centers on Max the younger child of a wealthy suburban couple who is losing his Christmas spirit despite holding onto it as long as he can. His parents are drifting apart, his sister is becoming the prototypical eye-rolling teenager, and his visiting aunts, uncles, and cousins are a trainwreck comparable to the Bumpuses. When he finally gives up, his dark mood sends a signal to the ancient Christmas spirit Krampus who comes to town to punish all of those who have forgotten the meaning of giving, by taking all that they have.
While Krampus’s resurrection has been a relatively recent phenomenon (check out the 2004 Venture Bros. Christmas Special for an excellent, early surfacing in pop culture), the movie does not play off his mythology like a joke. Krampus is a very real monster within the film who serves a very real purpose. He is taken no less seriously than Clarence or Santa Claus himself and that lack of self-effacing attitude helps ensure Krampus runs like a real horror movie. The German goat-monster comes with all of his evil servants to kidnap and kill the 12 members of this household, and that seriousness makes the tension and fear found in the first half of the movie feel very real.
Krampus is at its best when playing coy at the start, showing just enough of the monster and his meteorological effect on this town to build an intimidating presence. His first real appearance is also his best, simply shown as a massive hunched shadow with horns leaping between rooftops. It’s a genuinely scary effect that is largely undone by the creature’s face when repeatedly shown towards the end of the film. The static mask provides no ability to emote and isn’t scary seeming more like a toy than something living. Yet in the shadows, Krampus will send chills.
Before Krampus is fully revealed though, the family must survive wave after wave of minions, all of which reflect excellent monster designs. There’s a bag full of goodies, including the absolutely horrifying Jack-in-the-Box shown in the trailers, that are all lovingly made to be as creepy as possible. Twists on the teddy bear and Christmas tree angel are truly the stuff of nightmares. Snowmen and elves don’t escape the movie unscathed either. Not since Calvin & Hobbes have the frozen facsimiles been so demented, and heavy metal influenced elves are anything but cute. These costumes and props show a real level of dedication to bringing a scary aesthetic to Christmas, and form the greatest success of Krampus as a horror movie. It’s far more likely that the imagery on display will stick with you than the actual events themselves.
Despite having an enormous cast to torment and slay, Krampus drags its feet. Characters are allowed to continually escape with minimal consequences, which keeps the screen feeling over full and leads to such a quick succession of disappearances and deaths at the end that most land with almost no impact. The many monsters are put to poor use with only one providing a death that could be considered anything more than anticlimactic. Some of what is set up in the first half of the movie never sees its promise fulfilled or even acknowledged in the second half. There’s such a rush to reach the ending and winnow down the cast, it appears the writers forgot they had 100 minutes to work with, not just the final 20. Director Michael Dougherty at least tracks the action well enough that it is possible to discern exactly what happens to everyone, even if many of their final moments flop.
The ending itself lands weakly, unsure of exactly what kind of movie it wants to be. Rather than choosing to be a surprising Christmas film or embracing its horror premise, it aims to have it both ways and winds up watering down either result. The final shot is so poorly thought out that it could be read in at least three different manners, but the movie doesn’t quite seem to care whether it gets the point across as long as it gets to show off one more set piece to the benefit of nothing much that came before.
The weaknesses in pacing and writing, especially in the final act of Krampus, are offset by a surprisingly strong cast. It’s a movie lucky to have each of the four parents, played by Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman, who ground the affair and keep events moving. Koechner and Tolman both shine as bothersome uncle and aunt Howard and Linda, providing a real sense of humanity beneath their antics of machismo and jealousy. Conchata Ferrell as Aunt Dorothy steals every scene she occupies though, making biting little remarks and slipping the kids schnapps. It’s a delight to see her chew up what lines she is given and balance the stale performance found in Omi, the clan’s grandmother. Even the child actors play their parts well, many having a single note to hit and hitting it with confidence.
Performances and design elements make Krampus an enjoyable ride. The look and feel of this frozen Christmas hellscape with stick with you far longer than the story itself might, but getting to watch this family squabble and then try to take care of one another helps the movie avoid swerving off the road. There are clear problems in the script, made all the more saddening by how fixable each appears to be. The final result might be a lot better than many were expecting, but not quite as good as some may have hoped Krampus could be.