You don’t have to look hard to find a creepy side to Christmas. There’s the whole idea that Father Christmas is making a list of naughty boys and girls, who’ll be punished rather than treated on December 25th; there are those weird elves that parents are meant to put up on shelves to keep an eye on their kids; and, well, there’s Carol Of The Bells, which is most sinister piece of supposedly festive music ever written. Horror films haven’t been slow to pick up on it either and this year, to add to an already fairly long list of Yuletide horrors (Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night, Saint, Santa’s Slay…) there’s Krampus.
Directed by Michael Dougherty, the man responsible for the Halloween-themed anthology Trick R Treat, it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing the Christmas spirit. Max (Emjay Anthony) is a Christmas-loving kid who’s hoping for a celebration worthy of a Coca Cola advert, but when his horrible uncle, aunt, and cousins arrive, his dreams are dashed. Rather than post his letter to Santa, he rips it up and throws it out away, inadvertently summoning the Krampus – and all of his evil helpers.
The set-up is solid, with every member of the dysfunctional family quickly and distinctively sketched. So there’s sweet wide-eyed Max; his rebellious teenage sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen); their stressed out mother Sarah (Toni Collette) and overworked dad Tom (Adam Scott), plus his elderly, German-speaking mother Omi (Krista Stadler). On the other side of the family, there’s Sarah’s well-meaning-but-irritating sister Linda (Allison Tolman); her overbearing husband Howard (David Koechner); their tomboyish, bullying daughters Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel); their grubby brother Howie Jnr (Maverick Flack); and a baby. To top it all off, there’s Sarah and Linda’s cantankerous aunt, Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), who invited herself along at the last minute.
That’s a fairly long cast list, and it’s pretty impressive that every single of them (bar maybe the baby cousin) is memorable; they might not all get more than one personality trait, but they all serve a purpose. Putting all of those people together for three days over a snowed-in Christmas is a recipe for horror even without throwing monsters into the mix, so the film’s first third trundles along nicely, with various conflicts bubbling up and over.
And then the monsters arrive, and that part is brilliant. The creature design pushes the idea that everything’s scary if you give it big teeth almost to breaking point, as the unfortunate family is attacked by, among other things, a carnivorous teddy bear and an enormous Jack-in-the-Box, but they really are frightening. Unfortunately, the Krampus itself is kind of an anti-climax, as his hunched, horned Santa shtick is underwhelming after the brilliant menace of his many and varied minions. But by the time he turns up, there are barely any characters left to scare anyway (that’s the other advantage of a big cast, of course – lots of cannon fodder).
Anyone worried they might be too scared by this film probably doesn’t need to worry: though the creatures are horrifying, there’s very little actual onscreen violence. Underneath all the horror trappings, Krampus is really a family drama, and the real meat of the story is about how the characters interact with one another. There are moments where it teeters on the verge of being too schmaltzy about its goodwill-to-all-men message, but generally it pulls back just in time; yes, it’s pushing an agenda of family togetherness, but it never forgets that, for most people, loving their family is easier than actually liking them.
On the whole, then? A Christmas horror that delivers on both the Christmas and the horror aspects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite know where to end, settling on a bizarre triple-punch of unsatisfying conclusions. If it had ended with the first one, it’d have been too bleak; the second, too sugary; and the third, well, that’s just kind of nonsensical. It’s a real shame that Krampus doesn’t stick the landing, or it could well have become a new holiday classic. As it is, it’s kind of like being passed the family tin of Quality Streets after three or four people have already dug in – it’s still a treat, but it’s probably not what you really wanted.
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