The legend of the Germanic Christmas demon Krampus is such perfect genre fodder that I’m shocked there haven’t been a hundred movies about him already. This is the ancient spirit that comes to punish kids who’ve been bad while St. Nicholas is busy rewarding the good ones. In Michael Dougherty’s film, however, Krampus doesn’t seem particularly interested in the truly wicked, or even those who’ve been merely bad. The film’s opening credits give us over-the-top slow-motion shots of shoppers fighting over Christmas sales in a department store, and you could be forgiven for thinking (maybe even hoping) that these are the people Krampus will eventually target. But no, we eventually settle on one family, whose overzealous young son Max (Emjay Anthony) has just started a fight at the school’s annual Christmas recital. “He always ruins Christmas,” Max says of his victim. In other words, our little hero isn’t a naughty boy at all. He’s the one who cares about Christmas, maybe even a little too much.
Max’s family, however — father Tom (Adam Scott), mother Sarah (Toni Collette), and sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) — seems to be drifting away from the seasonal spirit. The boy wants to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special and wrap presents “like we always do,” but everyone else is too busy and wrapped up in their own world. Add to this the visit of their annoying relatives — led by gun-toting, boorish uncle Howard (David Koechner, doing his best David Koechner) — and soon enough, Max is wishing ill upon everyone else, and thereby accidentally summoning the title demon. Honest mistake, really.
Not unlike this past October’s far superior Goosebumps, Krampus attempts a tonal mix of the festive and wholesome with the tense and horrific, but this time it falls way further on the horror scale. (Both films try to evoke the kind of offhand levity and genre shenanigans that Joe Dante excelled at in films like Gremlins and The Burbs.) The scenes with the family are played up for amiable comic effect — you might even briefly wonder if you’ve wandered into an old-fashioned Christmas comedy. But when Krampus does show up, it’s with all the menace of a slasher killer crossed with a creature feature monster — he’s a horned, beastly thing that lurks on roofs and jumps on cars and chases people through the snow.
There’s an imbalance here. Dougherty does a nice job with calmer indoor scenes; his camera moves fluidly between characters and tones, from warm humor to grim foreboding, often within one tracking shot. And there are moments of patience and quiet that suggest a real feel for these people. Additionally, there’s one lovely extended flashback in the film, shot in eerie stop-motion animation, when Max’s German grandmother (Krista Stadler) explains the origins of the title myth, and why she thinks it might be targeting them.
But the horror setpieces, which are presumably what we’ve come to see, are disastrously jumbled. At times, the film seems to be going for a schlocky feel; Krampus’s small army of attendant creatures include fanged teddy bears and giant dolls come to life. At times, it seems to be going for straight horror. It’s hard to tell what’s happening at any given moment, though, given the rapid editing and the dark, inexact camerawork. That could be partly intentional. After all, the less we see, the easier it is presumably for the film to maintain its PG-13 rating. But it’s still fairly irritating. If you’re going to give us horror, give us horror; not bad technique.
But again, what is Krampus here to give us anyway? The film is often grisly, but it’s in the service of a corny tale of family togetherness and seasonal spirit. This demon may have started out as some kind of Nordic punishment myth, but here he’s come to remind everybody of the importance of Christmas. He just has a deranged way of doing it. This strange movie is similarly confused. It creates a nice, compelling little world for us, then loses itself amid a mess of choppy, ghoulish incoherence.