Dir. Michael Dougherty, 2015
I should know how hard it is to write a Krampus movie. About 7 years ago, I tried (and failed) to write a short screenplay that included Krampus. It was a mess, probably because I tried to do too much and make it into a story about redemption and transcendence throwing back to some old school stories of the saints that inspired the St. Nicholas and Krampus mythologies. But the surprise with Krampus, the real movie not my lousy screenplay, is that it ended up being so derivative. The Krampus and St. Nicholas mythologies have so much possible material for movies (one of the few things that Glenn Beck and I agree on is that there needs to be a gritty Santa reboot), especially horror films. Not just that the whole “there’s an immortal, magical man who breaks into your house at night and there’s also a Christmas demon who takes bad kids away in chains,” lends itself to horror, but that a lot of the older mythologies are pretty intense; for example, one of the major parts of St. Nick’s origin story was the basis for what would end up being Sweeney Todd.
Krampus begins more than vaguely reminiscent of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: an overworked career man with 2 angsty kids has to deal with the hijinks of the white trashy in-laws (including a crazy, rude Aunt); if nothing else, Krampus should be noted for casting David Koechner, who has based his career off of playing Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation, as basically Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation. After the son makes the mistake of ripping up his letter to Santa and saying he hates Christmas, we get a storm, it’s ominous beginnings are straight out of Poltergeist, that knocks out power and traps the family inside to deal with Krampus’ minions. Which is to say that Krampus, the awe-inspiring Christmas demon, doesn’t get a whole lot to do here. Instead we see David Koechner fight with CGI gingerbread men straight out of the Gingerdead Man series (it works about as badly here) and Adam Scott and Alison Tolman fight off some demonic toys and a giant Killer Klowns from Outer Space-esque jack-in-the-box. I should note that none of those things are in the Krampus mythology, and why they decided the best way to go about filling the bulk of their story was to mimic the proceedings of a bunch other, mostly less-successful movies is beyond me.
There’s nothing wrong with derivative; the horror genre is basically jazz (a few set standards with variations and riffs), and had the movie been a Gremlins clone I would have been happy (I mean, Joe Dante was probably available). But instead, the derivations suggest that nobody knew what kind of film this was supposed to be, and because of that we get a lot of weird, uncertain tonal shifts. It never decides how dark it wants to be, how unlikable to make the characters, how seriously it wants to take the “spirit of Christmas” stuff (especially after its cynical opening title sequence), etc. This should have been a horror comedy with Christmas overtones (which is what Gremlins was) but instead this is a run-of-the-mill Christmas comedy with horror overtones (though it’s neither very scary nor funny), and the ending callback to A Christmas Carol (via the remake of Invaders From Mars) nearly got this an automatic 1-star rating for committing perhaps my most hated cardinal sins of movie storytelling (if I told you what that was it would spoil the ending, unless you’ve seen Tobe Hooper’s Invaders From Mars, in which case you know what I’m talking about).
All of this is extra-disappointing because Michael Dougherty was an excellent choice for the director. His 2007 film Trick r Treat is a well regarded horror anthology film that demonstrates he knows how to make a darkly humorous horror film based on a holiday. And because the film includes so many likable, talented people (Toni Collette, Alison Tollman, Adam Scott). They all do enough to provide the movie with just enough interesting ideas, but the film is unable to sustain any consistently interesting ideas or themes.
Krampus did fairly well at the box-office, so as someone who’s been hoping that Krampus would become part of American pop-culture I hope that it helps in that regard, or that it lays the groundwork for a better movie to make better use of the character or its mythology.