It’s a holiday miracle when a multiplex horror film achieves a semblance of originality. On that basis, Krampus, with its efforts to turn a paint-by-numbers “home for the holidays” yukfest into a frozen hell, hikes a leg up above the rest, but it’s not enough. Michael Dougherty’s long-awaited follow-up to his straight-to-video treasury Trick ’r Treat sports a bigger budget and brighter cast without any licensed property to oblige. It’s also, unfortunately, haunted by the looming shadow of a PG-13 rating, pulling the reigns on anything too grim. Begrudgingly wearing studio-note-infected wounds, Krampus forces a Grinchy heart that grows three sizes without anyone asking, even as it refreshingly holds a spot for the practical-effects-driven creepshows of yore.
Like Trick ’r Treat, Krampus follows a simple warning: slight the spirit of the season, and you may find yourself ripped into streamers. That’s not of Dougherty’s own design; it’s in the very folklore that bears the titular beast. But way before the Griswoldian tone flips, in the air there’s a feeling of menace: Bing Crosby’s well-wishes ironically croon over another holiday staple - the apocalyptic doorbuster sale. Everyone’s naughty, and adults are as guilty as the kids. Past the sea of bloodthirsty dealseekers is Max (Emjay Anthony), a boy too old to still believe in Santa Claus, but big enough to kick the asses of older kids ruining the fun for young’ns. Hope in St. Nick is all Max has left; his letter petitions the reconciliation of mom (Toni Collette, “fucking-had-it”-face well utilized) and dad (Adam Scott, straight-man demeanor underutilized), and mourns the loss of friendship with his teenaged sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), who would rather hang with her boyfriend and his tree-adorned bong. He even throws a bone to the jolly old elf for their uncouth in-laws: mom’s passively aggro sister (Allison Tolman), her heat-packing hubby (David Koechner), their obnoxious brood, and their sloshed aunt (Conchatta Ferrell, who delivers the biggest gutbuster at the end). Beyond these thin brandings, the family members barely evolve past caricature, even if the broad cliches were intended. Though Dougherty’s last film had stock characters and shorter plotlines, they felt stronger and more penetrable then, leaving one to wonder how audacious the family could get with a harder rating.
Once the blizzard hits (prompted, I suppose, by Max’s tearing up of his letter), you remember why you sat down at all. Power sources fail, which may as well seal everyone’s fate. Menacing snowmen appear as mere omens (pity; they’d have been great killers) before the headliner shows up in a shadowy, thunderous entrance. Not only does he know when you’re asleep or awake, but he knows where you live, where the weak points are, and how you’ll burn on a ritualistic pyre. He’s also got some (albeit CGI) gingerbread gremlins, when the film really wants to be Dante instead of Dickens, warming the family up before some misfit toys (look, mom, no CGI!) look to swallow children whole. Though the grandmother too conveniently speaks enough English to tell everyone the Krampus backstory (in a beautiful animation sequence, which teases my appetite for stop-motion horror… hint hint, Dougherty), there’s little for anyone to do to stop it, which is a refreshing change. But that’s about where Krampus ends with deviating from the norm; the harsher violence (and language) is frenetically edited out, and a moralistic cheat ending wraps things up. There’s a smarter, colder film at Krampus’s core. You can feel it rattle, ready to sink its claws into worthy targets. Hopefully, if the film is enough of a success, Dougherty will be given leeway to do just that.