Krampus, inspired by the European legend, is a darkly comedic take on Christmas in the modern world. Much like his first film Trick ‘r Treat, director Michael Dougherty has made a horror film with some comedic aesthetics attached. The opening credits perfectly encapsulates how the “Season of Giving” has been reduced to selfishness and materialism. None of the main characters enjoy being in each other’s company during the days leading up to Christmas. After being pushed to the breaking point, young Max (Emjay Anthony) unknowingly summons the dark shadow of Santa Claus to his family’s neighborhood. From that moment on, Krampus is a fun but frenetic horror/comedy experience.
During the first third of the film, Krampus himself is absent. All of this time is spent on meeting Max’s peculiar family. This is where the comedy is played up the most throughout the entire film. Thanks to the writing and the performances, it never crosses into being ridiculous to the point of disbelief. Some of the characters are obnoxious to be sure but by choosing to frame the story in this manner, Dougherty makes Max’s decision to rip up a letter for Santa believable. At the same time, it perfectly sets up what Krampus is all about.
Rather than being portrayed as a simple-minded killer, Krampus in this film is very much in line with the legend. He comes not to give but to take from naughty children who misbehave. There is a demented playfulness that accompanies this character’s actions. He likes to play with the family before he takes from them. Dougherty shifts gears from comedy to dreadful eeriness the moment Max rips up his letter. A huge snowstorm arrives and knocks out all of the neighborhood’s power. This is not a jarring tonal shift. The characters (particularly David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell) continue to spew obscenities and smart-aleck comments. It is only when one of the characters ventures out into the snow that the film really kicks into high gear.
With the approach in tone and style that he took, it appears that Dougherty was inspired heavily by the films of Joe Dante. Heck, the gingerbread minions are just hairs away from being Gremlins. Most of the creatures within the film are done practically. Given that the budget was a meager 15 million dollars, it is a commendable feat. Not all of them look entirely convincing but there aren’t many ways to convincingly showcase gingerbread men wielding nail guns. The visuals and camera movements go a long way in stretching the budget. By setting the movie within a confined space trapped in a blizzard, Dougherty keeps the atmosphere at a consistent level. At the same time, the moments without any real chaos bring the budgetary limitations to light.
What was most surprising to me was that Krampus was much more of a horror film than I was expecting. There are a few moments where it does not effectively transition from being funny to being scary. The film is never out-and-out scary (although there is plenty of “nightmare fuel” for kids) but there are moments that succeed at creating tension. Part of this can be attributed to how the film gives many Christmas icons dark counterparts such as stuffed bears and jack-in-the-boxes. A lot of the sequences showing the characters warding off these monstrosities are pretty routine in how they are shot. Occasionally, something will happen that is actually surprising. One in particular is an impressive animated sequence that provides some back story about what Krampus is.
Where the movie stumbles is in its characterizations and some leaps in storytelling. Some of the adult characters are given additional layers to them as the story progresses. With that said, the younger characters are only there to be targets for Krampus. Some of them do not even receive any dialogue. Even though Max is the main character, he kind of takes a back seat during the middle portion of the film. Without spoiling anything, he does come back into frame during the climax that transitions into a fantastically twisted epilogue.
Although I did not like this as much as Trick ‘r Treat, I had a lot of fun with Krampus. That is also a little bit of a problem for me. I felt like it succeeded much more at being a horror/comedy than a spooky story about the dangers of Holiday cynicism. After the opening credits, it never fully gets back into functioning as social commentary. It felt more like an extended episode of Tales From the Crypt. The ending is a pun away from having an appearance by the Crypt Keeper himself. In that respect, it succeeds much more than it fails.