Framed by everything you hate about the holiday and everything you love about the genre, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus is a Christmas delight of monster mayhem and creepy holiday spirit. After this and his Halloween-set Trick ‘r Treat, he could be given an Easter Bunny horror film and likely deliver on the giggles and haunts in equal measure. That humor and horror go so confidently hand-in-hand is partly why Krampus is the unexpected treat that it is: a new alternative holiday classic for those of us bored by the marathon of A Christmas Story and crave something a little more attuned to the frustrations of the season.
Because what is the Christmas season with its share of familial unease and resentments? Krampus‘s family is archly drawn and diametrically opposed with the bluntest depiction of the current American divide, which while it doesn’t allow for much nuance (is that what you showed up for, really?), it does thrust the majority of the film’s effective humor. Driven by his disappointments with his parents and his disdain for his bullying extended family, protagonist Max (Emjay Anthony, previously charming in Jon Favreau’s Chef) rejects the spirit of Christmas and summons the demonic Krampus – and his doting German-immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) just may be a little familiar.
The family dynamics shift expectedly as the chaos ensues and everyone is forced to band together against the sinister forces of this satanic Santa, with this game ensemble having as much fun as the audience. Adam Scott is a charming fatherly counterpoint to the typically boorish David Koechner, though both struggle for chemistry is the many scenes focusing on their differences. Toni Collette again understands a mother’s anxieties, though her presence here is a bit of a head-scratcher. Character actress Conchata Ferrell brings her usual delightful drollness to her cliche character – if only we were given more of her always welcome screen presence.
Any nitpicking on the film is just that, for its intention are plain-faced and roundly achieved through an uncynical approach missing in contemporary horror cinema. Krampus is a monster movie first, hitting every expected beat along the way without losing its sense of fun. With creature design both out of a child’s nightmare and kooky imagination, Dougherty approaches every element with equal value placed upon both sides of the story with less fuss than the genre has seen in some time.
Perhaps helped by lowered expectations as witty horror has vacated the multiplex, Krampus also excels at being a traditional holiday narrative with enough twist to stand out among recent blander entries. Put it on a double bill with the likes of Gremlins and Die Hard for your off-kilter Christmas viewing.