Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields
Producer: Michael Dougherty, Alex Garcia, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni
Stars: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler
Krampus and his devilish minions terrorize a dysfunctional family that no longer believes in the Christmas spirit.
‘Tis the season for celebration in the seemingly safe suburban setting of the Engel household. Upper middle-class mother Sarah takes a torch to her crème brulee while German-speaking granny Omi bakes cookies in the kitchen. Dad Tom has to chastise his children after son Max stirs up a fistfight at school, though that’s only a small source of stress considering the frustration and fright yet to come.
Detouring out of “Christmas Vacation” comes Sarah’s tacky sister Linda and her boorish husband Howard. Howard is the kind of Budweiser-boozing blowhard whose idea of fine comedy is Larry the Cable Guy and whose guns, sports, and trucks obsession has him treating two daughters like boys. Add in a forgotten, fussy baby and a mouth-breathing mute for another bumpkin cousin, and this is not even close to the ideal Christmas young Max romanticized in his mind.
Bullied, beaten, and broken when his heartfelt letter to Santa is ridiculed at the dinner table, Max tears up the paper and throws it to the wind with a “bah humbug.” Stomping the holiday spirit somehow summons a sinister storm that in turn conjures December devil Krampus to ride in right behind.
The fabled Deutschland demon slings a sack on his shoulder bearing goblins instead of gifts. From killer kid’s toys and gingerbread beasts to choking colored light cords and sadistically snarling snowmen, every conceivable Christmas nightmare is soon made flesh to haunt Max and his brood. Krampus has come for every last Engel with a punishing reminder of why it isn’t wise to be a disbelieving Scrooge at year’s end.
On the strength of just two feature films released eight years apart, writer/director Michael Dougherty has made a confident case for the crown as the king of holiday horror movies. Not only does “Krampus” rank right up there alongside perennial Xmas chillers like “Black Christmas” (review here) and “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” Dougherty’s film emerges every bit as essential for repeat viewings in December as his “Trick ‘r Treat” is for October.
No creative effort is spared in putting together an imaginative and inspired production. Douglas Pipes’ musical score and a very cool animated interlude detailing Omi’s personal history with Krampus strike the spirit of a Tim Burton/Danny Elfman collaboration. Characterizations run the gamut from National Lampoon caricatures to relatable John Hughes archetype exaggerations. Each and every detail has a passion motivating its placement as something essential either to story or fun factor.
“Krampus” mixes the merry mischief of “Gremlins,” family follies from “Home Alone,” and demented fantasy of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” for a wicked, wild, even whimsical take on holiday traditions that is as much of a fable about family values as it is an energetic and eerie terror tale. The movie’s message is as meaningful as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” while relentless yuletide mayhem entertains whether the gag is a blackly comic riff on seasonal absurdity or the awesome spectacle of an overgrown jack-in-the-box swallowing a child whole.
Virtually everyone involved is eligible for the award, though casting directors Cathy Sandrich Gelfond and Amanda Mackey deserve MVP trophies for assembling a roster that is top shelf talent all the way down to a scene-stealing bulldog. Gelfond and Mackey demonstrate a spooky sixth sense for matching the right actor with the right role. Forced to eat fruitcake until you can think of just one other person better suited for any part and you will develop diabetes before coming up with a name.
A mid-movie lull needs more spring in its step and an interpretive ending has been the subject of some debate. Such small quibbles aside, “Krampus” gives much more than it deserves to have taken away. The movie is as funny as it wants to be, as frightening as it needs to be, and director Michael Dougherty works with hands of both playfulness and precision to gift-wrap a package worth tearing into any time of year.
Review Score: 85