98 min., rated PG-13.
The world has seen enough killer Santa Claus movies, but German-speaking Alpine folklore's horned, hoofed Krampus has never had a high-profile cinematic introduction until now. Fortunately, if director Michael Dougherty made the second most definitive ode to Halloween with 2009's darkly fun, deliciously atmospheric "Trick 'r Treat" (a film that, for reasons only the powers that be at Warner Bros. Pictures can explain, never saw a theatrical release), he sets out to do the same with the Yuletide holiday and the shadow of Jolly Old Saint Nick for his second feature. Dougherty and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields conceived of the idea and have done a gangbusters job with "Krampus," a wickedly fantastical and playfully macabre fable with a nasty streak running through its dark-as-coal blend of humor and terror. Where else are you going to find heartwarming Christmas fare with spiked hot chocolate, children getting pulled up the chimney, and adorably evil gingerbread cookies?
Preteen Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) still believes in Santa and cares about family traditions. He has written a letter for the North Pole in hopes that this Christmas will bring a little more happiness to his family. Sweet German immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) stands by her grandson's beliefs, while his parents, workaholic Tom (Adam Scott) and tightly wound Sarah (Toni Collette), are stressed out over relatives visiting and eye-rolling teenage sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) just wants to hang out with her boyfriend. The family needling begins before dinner is even served when Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman) arrives with obnoxious, gun-obsessed husband Howard (David Koechner) and their brood of three kids and a baby, as well as their unfiltered Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), much to Sarah's dismay. When Max's tomboyish cousins Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel) steal his letter to Santa and read it aloud, his embarrassment leads him to angrily ripping up the note and throwing it out the window. As the pieces of paper swirl up into the snowy night sky, a storm immediately forms around the house and a blizzard takes out the entire neighborhood's electricity. Max and his family can batten down the hatches and keep the fireplace hot as December 25th approaches, but the ancient spirit of Krampus has already come to town.
Opening with an ice-encrusted Universal Pictures logo, "Krampus" begins on a satirically barbed note in an amusing slo-mo sequence at a department store. Cued to Bing Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," shoppers ruthlessly stampede over another, greedily fighting over sale items, and the security guards get our their tasers. From conception to execution, the film largely harkens back to Amblin Entertainment's heyday, particularly Joe Dante's "Gremlins," with a tone that ranges from naughty to nice and right back to naughty. It would be one thing for writer-director Dougherty to make a holiday slasher with Krampus picking off each family member one by one, but there is also a mournful, eye-opening quality to Max's youthful idealism being crushed once a dark cloud hovers over the Engel household. When Omi explains to the family what they are up against and how their loss of believing in something has made their familial unit a target, her tragic childhood experience with Krampus is succinctly explained and beautifully realized in a stop-motion-animated flashback. A menacing figure when we finally get a good look at him, Santa's evil counterpart isn't the only threat, coming fully armed with demonic toys and an army of impish minions. Because of these seemingly innocuous nightmares that break out of their wrapped boxes, the real comic mayhem begins and Dougherty's demented imagination gets turned up to an eleven in a chilling and gleefully malevolent battle in the attic. These ghastly monsters could have looked tacky, but they are cool, delightfully twisted creations brought to life through terrifying practical effects and seamless CG work.
Most of the characters begin as dysfunctional-family stereotypes that one has seen before in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Home Alone," and "The Ref." For one, Howard isn't far off from Coustin Eddie and Aunt Dorothy is that one caustic relative everyone just tries to tolerate, but as the night goes on and the life-or-death stakes rise, some of them break out of those archetypes with color and humanity. As Max, Emjay Anthony ("Chef") is a sensitive and sympathetic lead, and his warm bond with the lovely Krista Stadler's Omi wonderfully brings one back to the grandson-grandmother relationship in 1990's "The Witches." The rest of the ensemble does well with the material, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Allison Tolman all getting a moment of fine character work and crowd-pleasing badassery. Even Conchata Ferrell is a gas as eggnog-swilling spitfire Aunt Dorothy.
Following through with an ending that deceives with relief but then isn't afraid to be grim, "Krampus" is devilish fun and actually taps into the true meaning and spirit of Christmas more so than most movies of the sentimental, non-horror variety. Going far with its PG-13 rating—we're talking giggling, nail gun-shooting gingerbread men, a man-eating Jack-in-the-Box, and a toothy teddy bear—this genre piece actually feels dangerous by never playing it safe and taking no prisoners. For a horror picture, it is also strangely magical, Jules O'Loughlin's sharp cinematography lending an atmospheric mood to the fire-lit living room of a suburban home and a palpable chilliness to the frosty exteriors. Jules Cook's seasonal production design and Daniel Birt's set decoration also should not be overlooked, coming together to make one of the better-looking horror films today and a nightmarishly festive one in its own right. If there are any qualms, it might be from one's own expectations; the film doesn't quite hit an overwhelming stride to become a modern classic, itself a nearly impossible scale to reach. Best-case scenario, "Krampus" will end up being this year's strongest studio-made horror offering to see, and it wouldn't be jumping the gun to say that those with more adventurous tastes will already have found a new favorite to add to the pantheon of holiday horror movies.
Grade: B +