Krampus is burdened with many shortcomings

by Steve Pulaski

Much like Michael Dougherty’s directorial debut Trick ‘r Treat, which has gone on to embed itself as a contemporary Halloween classic, one can hardly fault Krampus for trying to inject some life and memorability into the forgotten formula of Christmas horror that was ostensibly left for dead in the 1990’s. Unlike the last Christmas horror offering in theaters – the remake of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas nearly ten years ago, Krampus boasts an actual backstory and folklore going all the way back to days of Paganism. Cross that with a cast of proven comedic talents, such as Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and Two and a Half Men‘s Conchata Ferrell, and you basically have a genre hybrid that attempts to restore the magic of Christmas scares.

The sad part is that Krampus is the kind of film that feels like lightning will strike and it will, all of a sudden, be a strong piece of comedy-horror without having to rely on storytelling or genuine scares in order to be successful. It fails to realize that its concept doesn’t hold a lot of weight in the public mind, and that a film like this needs to introduce and give some sort of development to its titular villain in order for audiences to really establish any sort of connection.

The film revolves around a suburb family during the holidays made up of: young husband and wife Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), their daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and their son Max (Emjay Anthony), Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman) and her husband Howard (David Koechner), along with their three children and newborn daughter, Sarah’s aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), and Tom’s Austrian mother (Krista Sadler), who only speaks broken English. The opening twenty-five minutes of the film show that this family is an irreparable mess of ungratefulness, arguments, and conflicting intentions, most of which revolving around the tactless behavior of Linda and Howard’s side of the family, which doesn’t stop at their kids’ relentless bullying and aggression towards Max.

Directed by
Michael Dougherty
Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner
Release Date
4 December 2015
Steve’s Grade: D+

Max, who still wants to believe in Santa despite age and young adult wisdom beginning to come into play, finally gets so frustrated with the bullying that he rips his letter to Santa to shreds and throws it out the window. The pieces of the letter then get sucked into the sky and ignite a fierce blizzard, one with incalculable snowfall and whiteout conditions that knock out the power, phone-lines, and cell-phone service. Stranded in their own home, when Beth’s decision to go visit her boyfriend during the storm results in her not coming home, Tom’s mother reveals that this storm and its weird activities are caused by Krampus, a demon who punishes those naughty on Christmas. With that, Krampus – and what looks to be his band of monsters, which are anything from violent gingerbread cookies, psychotic snowmen, to anything that looks like it could’ve escaped from the screen showing Goosebumps – winds up abducting certain members of the family all while they are trapped like sitting ducks.

Where exactly does Krampus take Beth and his other victims? What is the history of Krampus and how did he come about? Why is he haunting this particular family who holds animosity for one another like most families do at holiday season? Why did Krampus take Beth, one of the more innocent members of the family? Who are the other monsters that Krampus works in conjunction with? These are some of the questions that Dougherty and co-writers Tom Casey and Zach Shields should be working to answer, but instead, they’re all overcome with the mistake that an overwhelming audio-track filled with synths and loud, sudden bangs and cacophonous noise substitute for scares.

These storytelling shortcomings are especially upsetting given what Dougherty manages to effectively make Krampus leading up to the more climactic sequences. To begin with, while comedy is definitely infused in Krampus‘s script, it’s pleasantly understated comedy that revolves around family contempt. Most of the quips and zingers in the film are family members mumbling things under their breaths in a stunningly realistic manner, showing the trio of screenwriters are definitely more concerned with believable and location-specific comedy than brazen humor or slapstick. In addition, Krampus is physically revealed throughout the film, meaning there’s no single moment where the score kicks in and we see a full shot of Krampus from top to bottom. Dougherty and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin do their best to give us sporadic ideas into the physical appearance of Krampus while making him a visual enigma, keeping the audience, at the very least, in-tuned and interested in what Krampus looks to be.

But around the forty-five minute mark, when we haven’t seen too much, we don’t really know too much, and there isn’t much to keep us invested other than what the titular demon truly looks like, Krampus goes from being a silly comedy-drama about a family not getting along (I already had to endure Love the Coopers last month) to a wild and cluttered horror film full of noise and narrative obscurities. While the latter would be more suited and acceptable for a generic holiday slasher, it isn’t acceptable for a film that wants us to get to know the origin and the roots of a certain character. Even the relatively minimalist and threadbare It Follows thrived on moodiness and metaphoric resonance in a way that captivated and at least gave the viewer something in return if they were willing to try and seriously follow the narrative. Krampus isn’t horribly predictable, nor is it of extremely poor quality, but its select narrative shortcomings bring down an otherwise fascinating project from a genre that will continue to go by the wayside in the modern day if films like this become the quality-standard.