Christmas, that magical period of the year we are all waiting for, the time of joy, carols, family, forgiveness and hope. But in reality for many it’s the most stressful time, a time of unimaginable crowds, overdrawn bank accounts, hours of hard labour around the house and in the kitchen and all just to spend a few hours with people sometimes we don’t even like that much.
Finishing his annual letter to Santa Claus, the world around Max (Emjay Anthony) is still full of magic, but for his parents Tom and Sarah (Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott and Fright Night‘s Toni Collette) and older sister Beth (The Lovely Bones‘ Stefania LaVie Owen) Christmas became just another tiresome family duty.
Grudgingly hosting her sister Linda (Fargo‘s Allison Tolman) and her gun-loving redneck husband Howard (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse‘s David Koechner), their bullying children and aunt Dorothy (Frankenweenie‘s Conchata Ferrell), but the true spirit of Christmas is gone from their beautiful suburban home and only Max and his German grandmother Omi (Krista Sadler) with her cookies and hot chocolate still believe in “the spirit of giving and sacrifice” as she explains.
It is over dinner the veneer cracks and Max, humiliated in front of the whole family by his cousins loses hope, tearing up his letter and throwing it into the night. The family wakes to find a supernatural blizzard has descended upon the neighbourhood, covering everything in snow, and the family realise that they are cut off without electricity, internet access or telephones, the house surrounded by creepy looking snowmen. Now the family must face the dark force which hides in the snow, a spirit from a very different Christmas tradition to the one they are accustomed to, but which one of the family has met before…
With opening scenes reminiscent of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation before the darkness descends, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus has no careful transition between the two parts of the film, only a single shot as the swirling snowflakes fall and the wind carries Max’s torn letter into the gathering clouds beneath the crescent moon before it stops being a not very funny comedy and reawakens as a not very scary horror. With such a broad playing field, a horror film can be many different things, but one thing it should not ever be is boring, which is exactly what Krampus manages to achieve.
The dialogue and situations aren’t sophisticated or creative enough to carry the humour above a base level and the usually dependable Toni Collette is particularly wasted, given none of the complexity of her characters in The Sixth Sense or The Night Listener. With only lip service paid to the family members missing in the snow rather than any semblance of real grief it doesn’t feel convincing, nor does the narrative fit comfortably within the time frame depicted, daughter Beth having been gone for almost a full day before anyone questions her absence, and that confused pacing translates to a fundamental deficit of urgency and tension.
Joe Dante’s essential seasonal classic Gremlins worked because among the sympathetic leads who lived in the fully realised town of Kingston Falls some of the victims were grotesque caricatures deserving of their fate, but here neighbourhood is inexplicably deserted other than the delivery man and the snowplough driver and the visiting relatives are just tiresome and selfish; the audience don’t wish them dead, just gone away.
When the chaos descends on the household it is woefully pedestrian and unimaginative, the potential of the quirky premise blending American festive expectation with the darkness of European folklore squandered in a generic and toothless studio picture which plays it safe with every footprint in the snow right up to the utter cop-out of the telegraphed finale which could only have been more trite if Santa Claus himself had shown up to save Christmas Day.
Beneath the impressive masks, costumes and animatronics of the various demonic forms later revealed, the first appearance of Krampus himself is marred by being unmistakably digital as he leaps across the snowy rooftops, and nor are obviously computer generated gingerbread men with a nailgun an effective substitute for a practical Gremlin in the blender, with the most notable technical aspect of the film being that half of it unfolds with only candlelight illuminating the screen, creating a beautiful visual atmosphere which is utterly wasted.
While it’s sometimes nice to try something new to prevent the festive season becoming stale, anyone fancying a change from the perennial favourite Gremlins would be better advised to seek out a copy of 2010’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Despite the promises and the heavy promotion, beneath the gaudy gift wrap Krampus is a disappointing present soon to be passed on to a charity shop, as come January nobody will be seen dead with it.