Atmospheric "Krampus" Delivers The Christmas Creeps

More creature feature than fright flick, “Krampus” is Michael Dougherty’s long-awaited follow-up to cult horror favorite “Trick ‘R Treat.” In 2006 the young writer-director jumped right from scripting duties on Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” into production on his slasher anthology movie. Both projects projected to make him a hot Hollywood commodity. Both would belly flop hard at the box office.

“Trick ‘R Treat” barely made it to the big screen at all, shelved by Warner Bros. for nearly two years before being waved off into a few theaters with a simultaneous home video release. And while it isn’t the sunken treasure its fans have claimed it to be, it’s a visual kick of a movie with some wonderful setpieces that deserves the devoted following its accrued.

“Krampus” is every bit its spiritual successor, a Christmas horror-comedy that’s just as fiendishly fun – and just as uneven.

Dougherty the director is once again entirely on point, whipping up some premier images and Holiday-themed thrills. His monsters – led by the film’s titular demonic goat-man, an anti-Santa Claus straight out of German folklore – are a wondrous mix of practical and computer-generated effects, ever-captivating as they plague a suburban family trying to celebrate the Holidays.

On the other hand, the human characters are near total loss. Dougherty the screenwriter uneasily mixes the creatures’ PG-13-level scares with the most misanthropic humans to grace a Christmas film since “Bad Santa,” making for a movie that is unvaryingly better when no one is speaking.

Adam Scott (“Step Brothers”) and Toni Collette (“Little Miss Sunshine”) star as parents to Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony), the latter being the troubled youngster whose angsty attitude towards Christmas invites the wrath of the Krampus. Also present are David Koechner (“Anchorman”) and Allison Tolman (FX’s “Fargo”) as their relatives, hateful yokel parents to hateful yokel kids that make everyone else miserable just by being in the same room.

The characters’ meanness would seem a tactic to make their ultimate doom something to root for, but “Krampus” isn’t that kind of film. It’s only lightly scary and mostly concerned with atmosphere and creature design, a spooky funhouse of a flick that wouldn’t be inappropriate as a pre-teen’s first horror movie. The one-dimensional noxiousness of the human characters (not even Max or his family are particularly likable) doesn’t gel with the story at large, making us desperate for the monsters to return and save us from these terrible, no-good human characters.

A lovely stop-motion animation sequence narrated by Max’s German grandmother about the origins of the Krampus is the closest Dougherty comes to making us care about his protagonists, but alas, it adds little to the story.

Luckily, the humans mostly go quiet in the third act as they become prey, beginning with an absurdly fun sequence featuring evil Gingerbread men and climaxing with Krampus’ last stand.

If there are only a small batch of scenes here worth seeing, they’re worth seeing, tedious set-up and all. And they’re highs that are higher than those of “Trick ‘R Treat,” making “Krampus” a sure thing for Dougherty fans and a solid bet for horror fans at large.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: December 4, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Director: Michael Dougherty
Screenwriter: Michael Dougherty, Todd Casey, Zach Shields
Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, Allison Tolman, David Koechner, Conchata Ferrell, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material)