Review: Holiday horror comedy ‘Krampus’ ends up more naughty than nice

One of the weird sub-genres of film that I am fascinated by is the “scary Christmas movie,” and when said scary Christmas movie is from the director of “Trick 'r Treat,” I am doubly curious. Walking into “Krampus,” I had my fingers crossed that I was about to see something that could enter the annual rotation.

While I don't think the film works as a whole, there is a lot to like about “Krampus,” not the least of which is that once it gets going, it doesn't seem to hold anything back. This is one of the most intense PG-13 films I've ever seen, with a nightmarish second half in particular full of images that really will be too much for many younger viewers. Michael Dougherty, who co-wrote and directed the film, has a fondness for the truly off-kilter, and his monster designs in this film feel very tactile and organic and perverse. You wouldn't want to touch anything you see onscreen. Doughterty's assembled a great cast, and he certainly has a great nasty sense of humor. So why doesn't this one feel like it connects?

It certainly starts well, with a bleakly hilarious opening title sequence featuring footage of a brutal Black Friday mob wreaking havoc in slow-motion while “It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” plays. It says pretty much everything you need to say about the commercialization of Christmas in one fell swoop. From there, we are plunged into the personal holiday hell of Max (Emjay Anthony), who has to contend with his parents, his sister, and the extended family that descends on their home just in time to bitch and moan their way through Christmas. His parents, Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) are starting to unravel a bit as a couple, his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), and the person he's closest to, his grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) is having a hard time getting excited about the season. Throw in Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her obnoxious husband Howard (David Koechner), their awful kids and the unbearable Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), and you've got a house full of human horror before you ever introduce the supernatural.

There are a number of Krampus movies either in development, in recent release, or just about to come out, and it's always interesting to see that happen, when one idea seems to suddenly explode into the collective pop consciousness. What will distinguish these films from one another is how they set up the mythology of Krampus, and oddly, that's the biggest failure of this film. There are no rules established for who Krampus comes to get or why, and the mechanism that triggers everything is very vague. As a result, there's no real sense of rising stakes or growing menace. Bad things just happen. It's clearly triggered by Max and his feelings about Christmas, just as Omi triggered it when she was very young, but we don't know why or how it works. Clearly, “Krampus” has its eyes on the Amblin' mid-'80s vibe, and there are stretches where that's exactly what the film accomplishes. But if you use “Gremlins” as a point of comparison, that film was very careful to set up rules. Sure, the rules are silly and the more you dig into them, the less actual sense they make, but they give you a structure that makes sense. Here are the rules. Don't break them. Oh, you broke them? Well, here's what you get. Without even the vaguest of rules, this is just a collection of nasty terrible things happening to people.

Having said that, the nasty terrible things are staged well and frequently genuinely nasty and terrible. If anything, I was surprised by just how nasty and terrible all the nasty and terrible things were. Krampus himself is revealed only in tiny glimpses, gradually over the course of the film, and he's suitably disturbing. He has a variety of minions, including evil gingerbread creatures and scary elves, but I would have liked some sense of how all of these things worked. There are a number of moments where Doughtery introduces something truly interesting and then never returns to it. Yes, the movie is perhaps overstuffed with interesting ideas, but that can be just as frustrating as a film with no good ideas at all.

If I was on the fence before the film's ending, then the ending itself almost pushed me completely off. Without saying what happens, I'll just observe that I am not fond of certain devices in films. I think if you're going to take the audience to some dark, upsetting places, you have to mean it. You can't do it and then chicken out. Even worse, “Krampus” tries to have it both ways, and I think the end result is a muddle, not a compromise. It feels like Dougherty is very good at the individual scenes and moments, but he loses control over the bigger things.

The cast has fun with things, but even so, it feels like there are several different movies going on at once. Tone can be a bitch when you're making a film like this, and Dougherty tries to navigate some pretty tricky terrain. There are a number of moments when it feels like he's trying to make something hilarious and horrible at once, and that can be next to impossible to pull off. His actors help quite a bit, but even so, things veer from natural and realistic to totally cartoonish and then back, and it practically leaves the cast with a case of whiplash.

“Krampus” should entertain crowds who are up for something grim, but I'd warn parents that the PG-13 rating feels like a bit of a cheat. This may not be gory, but it is intense in the way “Poltergeist” was intense back in the '80s. This pushes the rating as far as it can possibly bend, and it should give younger viewers genuine nightmares. I remain a fan of Dougherty's work, and I really want to love everything he does. “Krampus” is a little too shaggy for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it, but I do think it has a lot to offer those who like their holidays a wee bit on the bloody side.

“Krampus” is in theaters tomorrow.