Movie Review: “Krampus”

Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell
Michael Dougherty

It’s been eight long years since Mike Dougherty’s directorial debut, the excellent horror anthology “Trick ‘r Treat,” and he’s back to once again raise hell on the holidays with his sophomore effort. “Krampus” is a darkly funny Christmas film that features some solid laughs, playful set pieces and a fantastic use of practical effects.

Max (Emjay Anthony) loves Christmas. His family, however, doesn’t exactly share his excitement for the holidays: Max’s dad, Tom (Adam Scott), works too much; his mother, Sarah (Toni Collette), is a worrying control freak; and the rest of his family is constantly bickering and fighting. After Max tears apart his letter to Santa, asking for his family to be happy again, Krampus – an evil spirit who’s sort of like the anti-Santa Claus – comes to town. At its side is a horde of minions, including evil gingerbread men, a bloodthirsty teddy bear and a monstrous jack-in-the-box. If they hope to survive the night, Max’s family must put aside their problems and fight back.

The villains are the highlight of “Krampus.” Dougherty’s handmade approach to the film is exciting to watch. There’s a huge reliant on practical effects, making these monsters all the funnier, scarier and more believable. There’s very little noticeable CGI in the movie, with the exception of the comical gingerbread men.

But as fantastical as the story is, the threat in “Krampus” feels real. The first kill in the movie is unsettling, and as much as this family bickers, the audience cares when they’re attacked or mutilated. The actors, especially the young ones, bring a real sense of fear and sadness to the film. It also helps that Dougherty has a great handle of tension. When Max’s sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), is running from Krampus, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, it’s wonderfully timed.

The big moments in “Krampus” are tonally well handled. There are laughs and tension, making up for the fact that its PG-13 rating holds certain moments back. The rating is hardly an issue, though, because Dougherty’s tension doesn’t always call for blood. Sometimes, what we don’t see is just as scary as what we would see.

The laughs and thrills increase as the picture goes along. The setup hits the beats we expect from a dysfunctional family unit, but screenwriters Dougherty, Zack Shields and Todd Casey’s family drama becomes more compelling over time. You end up caring for the characters by the end, because they all feel like people we know in our own families.

The ending is where the film runs into trouble. The last 30 minutes are a blast, but then there are about three endings, two of which would’ve been more satisfying, and not just because they’re darker. “Krampus” isn’t mean-spirited, but it doesn’t let any of these characters get off easy. The deaths always feel huge in the movie – so huge, in fact, you begin to worry that the movie is going to copout at the end, and you could argue that it does just that. It’s an ending that takes away from the overall experience, but not too much that it undermines the fun of Dougherty’s film.