Screenwriter Michael Dougherty makes his directorial follow-up to 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat in Krampus, once again delivering a dark, comedic horror that takes glee in drawing out the darker side of the season.
Much as Trick ‘r Treat explored the threat lurking beneath some familiar Halloween rituals, Krampus finds a sadistic streak in Santa Claus. Drawing upon European folklore, Dougherty finds his villain in the cloven-hoofed Krampus. Described as “the shadow of St. Nicholas,” Krampus is more concerned with the naughty list than the nice, doling out punishments and taking the souls of those who’ve forgotten the true spirit of Christmas.
Modern corruptions of Christmas are on show from the opening onwards, as ravenous shoppers storm a ‘Mucho Mart’ in scenes familiar to anyone who dared venture outside on Black Friday. From that crass commercialization onwards, Dougherty tackles family feuds, obsessive perfectionism and emotionally distant parents as he explores the myriad ways the spirit of the season has been lost. Eventually it’s all too much for young Max (Emjay Anthony), who tearfully tears up his letter to Santa Claus, drawing the attention of his darker half.
Dougherty takes his time setting up the bickering extended family at the film’s centre, led by parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette). Their delicate middle class existence is shattered by her visiting sister Linda (Allison Tolman) and her redneck husband Howard (David Koechner). Class warfare and familial fall outs are closely intertwined as the group squabbles through the season, but it’s a slow set-up with jokes thin on the ground, and Krampus and his not-so-friendly helpers can’t make their appearance quickly enough.
Their arrival is, for the most part, worth the wait though. Krampus himself is a hulking beast in a Father Christmas suit, a horned, panting creation who looks like he crawled out of Pan’s Labyrinth by way of Santa’s Grotto. Frustratingly, Dougherty commits the cardinal sin of leaving too little to the imagination from the monster’s first appearance, perhaps giving away that his real interest is in the creatures and helpers surrounding the titular foe.
Setting aside some CGI gingerbread men, mostly responsible for sub-Gremlins mayhem and carnage, the rest of the Krampus Krew are ghastly, inventive and mostly realised using practical effects. A ravenous jack-in-the-box cleverly subverts expectations set up by the trope, well worn in recent years, while there’s some sort of flapping owl-thing that puts an elongated tongue to alarming use. Even the friendly Christmas elves make an appearance, their design owing some influence to Japanese kabuki masks, scuttling through the waist-deep snow and snatching up the unwary.
The horror, once it gets going, is for the most part bloodless, striking a sort of fantastical, fairy tale tone that eschews spurts of gore. Dougherty’s direction is competent, making the most of his extensive array of physical beasties powered by practical effects, but it’s the sound design that really drives the frights, a punchy, tightly edited mix, heavy with screams and clanking chains.
Krampus promises a revival of the much-loved Amblin films of the ‘80s, almost a genre unto themselves, meshing the creature feature with light satire and a healthy helping of good old family values. Unfortunately, the film never quite hits its mark. Scott and Collette lead an adult cast well versed in comedy, but flat editing and a dearth of jokes in the script hold them back from ever eliciting much more than a wry chuckle, while the grim tone leaves little hope of anything truly heartwarming.
Without that black comedy to fall back on, the film is left to stand on the merits of its horror alone, and thanks to a sluggish first act and a tendency to fall back on tried and tested tropes, Krampus can’t quite deliver the goods. It’s no lump of coal, but it’s not much better than a stocking stuffer.
Words by Dominic Preston