It’s impossible to talk about Christmas horror movies without referencing Gremlins, and Krampus knows that. Boasting a similar ‘family fight festive critters’ premise to Joe Dante’s 1984 classic, it’s got a similarly dark sense of humour, not least when its menagerie of creatures are finally unveiled after a shadowy build-up. While director Michael Dougherty (who previously made decent 2007 Halloween anthology Trick ‘R Treat) is clearly enamoured with Gremlins and seems to want to recapture that film’s mischievous sense of fun, Krampus ends up being a very different beast, for better and worse.
We meet xx-year-old Billy (xx xx) in the days leading up to Christmas. Billy’s at a difficult age when he’s starting to question Santa’s existence, and his parents’ inability to give him a firm answer either way only contributes to his morose spirit. When his extended family arrive to stay for the holidays, things worsen, particularly when Billy’s bully cousins (xx and xx) get their hands on his heartfelt letter to Santa, which contains personal (and not particularly complimentary) observations about pretty much every family member.
Despite Dougherty’s form in horror territory, Krampus is most confident in these opening moments, which introduce our central family in all their warring glory. Great aunt xx (xx xx) is a mouthy alcoholic, while Billy’s aunt and uncle (xx and xx) rub his mother xx (Toni Collette) and father xx (Adam Scott) up the wrong way by merely existing. Only Billy’s German grandmother, Omi (xx xx), keeps to herself, but her silence comes heavy with the suggestion she’s hiding something from her family. Recalling the manic domestic scenes of Home Alone and any number of other John Hughes movies, Krampus’ opening 30 minutes are assured and funny, expertly making us care for the family despite and because of its obvious disfunction.
When Billy’s letter is read out at the dinner table, though, Billy’s so upset he tears it up and throws it out the window. The next morning, the entire street has lost power and a fearsome blizzard has transformed the neighbourhood into a frozen wasteland. Stranded in the house, the family continue to irritate one another, until one family member goes missing, prompting an unsuccessful search and, eventually, the revelation that Billy’s actions have inadvertently summoned Krampus, an anti-Santa straight out of German folklore who preys on anybody who’s given up on Christmas.
As horror premises go, it’s a doozy, and Dougherty goes to great pains to squeeze every drop of tension out of it. Initially, the tension-cranking is effective, particularly during one scene from the trailer in which Billy’s sister xx (xx xx) hides under a car only to be confronted by a creepy jack-in-the-box. After its assured opening, though, Krampus hesitates, and its second act becomes a tiresome exercise in over-long tension-building (even if it is punctuated with a brilliant bit of chimney barminess that finally gets the snowball of terror rolling).
It’s a good hour before Krampus’ alternately giggling, slavering, shambling monsters are finally revealed. The horned Krampus itself is genuinely horrifying, accomplished using puppetry and prosthetics (with a dash of CGI), while its army of scampering menaces are both ridiculous and terrifying. They’re also, for the most part, lovingly created using old-school prosthetics, which adds the kind of grounded weirdness to the film surely last seen in the Child’s Play series. When these bizarre anomalies break out, the scenes of carnage are impressively handled, providing just enough gore, levity and goo to sate horror appetites.
Part of the problem, though, is that Krampus gets confused over who its lead character is. After sticking closely to Billy and establishing his conflict, the narrative constantly switches between different family members until we’re left in something of a muddle. Meanwhile, Krampus ends up being more freaky than truly scary, and it’s most surprising just how bleak Dougherty’s film quickly becomes. The director has talked about Krampus as a horror movie in the Amblin mould, citing films like Gremlins and The Goonies as tonal touchstones, but despite Great Aunt xx delivering sardonic quips between sips from her hip flash, Krampus isn’t afraid of striding headfirst into pure horror terrain, and when that happens, the chuckles all but disappear completely.
When you throw in a beautiful but unnecessary animated segment, characters doing frustratingly silly things (would you send /your/ daughter out into a blizzard alone?), and an ending that tries too hard to be clever instead of settling for genuine emotion, Krampus winds up being a mixed bag of toys. There’s no shortage of chill-inducing weirdness (see the snowmen), but Dougherty seems so intent on creating something unpredictable and unsettling that he forgets what made the film’s first 30 minutes so strong – the bond between its dysfunctional family.
With Gremlins 3 looking more likely than ever, Krampus provides an entertaining diversion as we await Gizmo and co’s return. Dougherty comes so close to greatness that it’s upsetting when he comes up short. Still, between Krampus’ monster set-pieces, domestic banter, and a spirited turn by young xx (Billy), there’s much to love here. A few years from now, Krampus will have earned its place as a festive cult classic, which is just where it belongs.
This review originally ran at Frame Rated.