For one reason or another, the merging of horror and the Christmas season seems a perfect fit. In Krampus, director Michael Dougherty creates a familiar moral fable out of the titular figure of Alpine folklore and the results are underwhelming.
The by-committee screenplay wields naïve tropes without much magic, but Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography navigates the ghostly and snowy set design with lean lines and the Douglas Pipes score scores nostalgia points. Still, things are too convenient and simplistically drawn to render anything overly memorable and Krampus merely melts into its own mediocre shadow.
A suburban family helmed by Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) is trying to pull through the holidays. Son Max (Emjay Anthony) is losing his faith in Christmas traditions despite the influence of his Omi (Krista Stadler). Teenage daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) would rather spend time with her boyfriend, especially when out-of-town relatives come over.
Said relatives include Uncle Howard (David Koechner), Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) and an unholy collection of kids. The throng gets into all the projected entanglements and Max eventually gives up on Christmas altogether, which leads to the arrival of the demonic Krampus and his circus-like cronies.
According to folklore, Krampus is a horned figure in charge of punishing unruly kids around the Christmas season. He exists, as Omi points out, in the shadow of Saint Nicholas. The historical record suggests that Krampus is pagan in origin, with Krampusnacht still celebrated in some parts of Europe on December 5.
Unfortunately, there is little interesting mythology in Krampus and Dougherty takes a safe, predictable path. Things become archetypal in their “can’t we all just get along” mentality, especially as the political lines are so loudly drawn. The visiting out-of-towners are conservatives, complete with global warming denial and gun collections. They clash with the liberals in all the typical ways.
The usual suspects are on the pyre, like consumerism and family discord. People are going their own way, people are growing up, people are working too much, blah blah blah. Because there’s little-to-no nuance, there’s little-to-no energy behind the moral positioning. Krampus insists on belief in unsteady traditions, no matter how sour they may become.
In some sense, it’s about growing up and understand things. And Anthony’s Max is a decent guide through the morass, even if he’s relegated to the background when the fur starts to fly. He can’t help it if his parents and relatives are unsophisticated stereotypes, after all.
There are some nice touches, like a stop-motion animation sequence, and the snow-white world outside the family home makes for a fine if underutilized set piece. The onset of snowmen on the lawn is eerie, too. But in sum Krampus is just an ornament, another holiday-oriented bit of lesson horror with hooves and chains to match.