KRAMPUS begins in such a promising fashion. Taking the worst that the holiday has to offer in this, the real world of boorish relatives, rampaging hordes of shoppers, and Christmas pageants gone horribly awry, it hopes to build on that to tell an even more horrifying tale of the supernatural comeuppance for losing the holiday spirit. Unfortunately, the ci-mentioned real world horrors make those of vengeful creatures with hooves and horns, not to mention murderous gingerbread men, pale in comparison. In fact, next to the spine-chilling prospect of a drunken aunt (Conchatta Ferrell) and a brother-in-law with survivalist tendencies, a carnivorous jack-in-the-box is a piece of marzipan stollen.
This being a Christmas story, albeit one of the putatively comedy-horror variety, the main character is a suitably tousle-haired kid, Max (Emjay Anthony), who is at that difficult age where believing in Santa is no longer acceptable to his peers. Or his older sister (Stefania LaVie Owen), or his cousins (Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel). Only his beloved German grandmother (Krista Stadler) encourages him to keep on believing, even if it’s only in the spirit of the season, rather than a jolly old man in a red suit. During a particularly fractious family dinner, Max snaps, and in a fit of pique, rips up his letter to Santa and thereby provokes the dark doings that then ensue.
That would be inadvertently summoning Krampus, the legendary dark shadow of St Nick, older than Christmas itself, who takes rather that gives, punishes rather than rewards. In fine horror film fashion, we see only bits and pieces of Krampus at first. The long curved horns, the hooves instead of feet, and that nifty ability to leap from one housetop to another with a resounding boom. By the time grandma tells the story of her encounter with Krampus as a small child, It’s almost an anti-climax, not unlike the final furious showdown after a few of the children have disappeared and the Christmas tree has caught on fire. A curious static use of the camera, and monstrous toys that aren’t all that creepy conspire to keep the horror level at bay, while the determination to keep the lights low after a blizzard knocks out the power, with no strategic use of candles or flashlights makes it hard to tell what exactly is going on.
Full credit to Adam Scott and Toni Collette as Max’s parents for maintaining a fine tone of repressed anger while dealing with the relatives who have descended upon them en masse with their assorted jibes, smells, and condescension. The scenes of their slow burns and eventual snap are the best written, best directed parts of the film and are genuinely enjoyable in that cathartic, glad-it’s-not-me sort of way. And there is something magical, in the dark sense, about how Max’s shredded letter spirals into an ill wind that brings the darkness, both literal and figurative.
Things fall apart quickly from there. No one, for example, worries about the multiplying snowmen that suddenly appear on the front lawn, snowmen that are not so much jolly as menacing. David Koechner, as blow-hard Uncle Howard can be funny just by cocking an eyebrow, so it can’t be his fault that being overcome by some razor-toothed Christmas cookies doesn’t work as comedy. Or that the cookies themselves are more like the Pillsbury Dough Boy on an off day than bloodthirsty pastry. The comedy loses its edge, and the horror never rises to the occasion of even mild suspense, despite pounding from an attic that should be empty, and the way people find themselves swept under snowdrifts with barely time to yell for help. Actually, now that I think about it, the aggressively festive Christmas sweater sported by Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) may be the most frightening thing going in KRAMPUS.