If you’ve been watching Trick ‘r Treat regularly since it arrived in 2009, Krampus is a big deal. Director Mike Dougherty deserved to get a second feature off the ground far sooner than this, but Krampus is finally making its way into theaters and while it certainly can’t top Trick ‘r Treat, it does share a similar playful yet intense approach to holiday horror that could wind up making it a worthy Christmas tradition.
Krampus centers on the Engel family. Here’s the roll call; there’s the down-to-earth Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), their semi well behaved kids, Max (Emjay Anthony) and Beth (Stefania Lavie Owen), and the family matriarch Omi (Krista Stadler) who rarely speaks and when she does, it’s in German. But then there’s the extended family. We’ve got the loud and obnoxious uncle Howard (David Koechner), his bratty children Stevie (Lolo Owen), Jordan (Queenie Samuel) and Howie Jr. (Maverick Flack), baby Chrissy and their mother Linda (Allison Tolman), who does what she can to keep the peace. Toss in Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), who’s got no filter whatsoever, and you’ve got the recipe for an especially volatile holiday get-together.
However, petty arguments and clashing personalities turn out to be the least of their worries. Soon after Howard, Linda, and the kids arrive at Tom and Sarah’s place, Stevie and Jordan pick a fight with Max, ultimately ruining his Christmas spirit. Max runs up to his room, tears up his heartfelt note to Santa Claus and inadvertently conjures Krampus in the process. He’s the exact opposite of Saint Nick. Whereas Santa gives gifts and spreads holiday cheer, Krampus punishes people on Christmas.
There’s no better starting point than the Krampus mythology, especially because there are so few quality Christmas-themed horror movies out there and because none have bothered to tap into this particular legend and bring such a cinematic character to screen. In the States, Christmas is all about Saint Nick, presents and holiday cheer, but there’s loads of incredibly sinister holiday folklore honored throughout the world, and the story of Krampus is one them. Dougherty seizes this opportunity and goes above and beyond with his visuals and creature design. The only problem is that he then fails to give them enough screen time.
More than anything, Krampus is a dysfunctional family movie, and a fairly good one, too. At the start, Howard and the kids are the absolute worst. So horrible, in fact, that you can’t wait to see them get dragged away by Krampus and his elves. However, Dougherty doesn’t just pull the trigger, unleash the mayhem, and swiftly pick off his characters one-by-one starting with the most obvious targets. He delivers a taste of what Krampus is capable of and then lets it simmer, giving you the chance to see how it forces the family to work together and, in turn, the movie hits a point where you fear for almost every single one of them.
The entire ensemble is spot-on, but Scott, Collette, Anthony, Koechner and Tolman really command the screen and highlight minimal but effective arcs, ensuring that everything the family goes through isn’t just a cool looking scare, but something with meaning that strikes a chord on a deeper level. The only problem with the more character-driven, slow burn approach to the scenario is that when you see the creatures in action, it’s hard not to wish that Dougherty had fast forwarded through the dialogue-heavy, character building moments and given that screen time to zany monster attacks instead.
Dougherty’s choice to run with mostly practical effects and puppets is genius. Krampus, his elves and the toys all have this fantastic texture to them that makes them feel like they could have crawled right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The style is especially pleasing to the eye and it’s also far more horrifying than a glossy, CG design. However, there is one sequence with digital creatures that’s a standout. No spoilers here, but you’ll know it when you see it. The effects are impeccable, they’re paired with a stellar physical performance and the moment rocks a brilliant blend of sheer terror and playfulness, highlighting what Dougherty excels at.
Krampus can’t match the momentum of Trick ‘r Treat and it certainly could have benefited from more scare/fight scenes in the middle of the movie, but that doesn’t make Krampus any less of a nightmarish holiday treat. The characters grow on you, the Krampus legend is wildly intriguing, there are loads of outstanding practical creatures and it’s also got this somewhat addictive, re-watchable quality that’s very reminiscent of Trick ‘r Treat and will likely turn the movie into an annul tradition for some.