In recent years, Krampus, the demon-monster of Germanic mythology, has become popular in American culture. Mostly, I think, because of the current passion for all things pagan. I have no objection, though the appeal escapes me. The old boy has already been showcased in some barely released bargain-basement movie called Krampus: The Christmas Devil (2013), and he now has a much more mainstream movie to call his own in Michael Dougherty’s Krampus. In case you’re out of the loop, Krampus is not something that can be quelled with Midol or Lydia Pinkham. No, Krampus is the dark side of ol’ St. Nick — think of him as the Anti-Claus. You know that “Naughty or Nice List” that Santa keeps? Well, the Naughty List is apparently given over to this Krampus fellow, and he punishes the Naughty Ones. And … ? Well, that’s kind of the problem.
What this big, hairy goat creature — depicted here as a (kind of) bulky cross between the Goat of Mendes and a yeti (the abominable snowman, not the pricey ice chests) — actually does (other than carry off kiddies and flick his industrial-strength tongue) is a little sketchy. This is a problem that Doughtery and his co-writers, Todd Casey and Zach Shields, have largely failed to solve. The result? Krampus is virtually a guest star in his own movie. From the evidence, Krampus would appear to slide down the chimney and then burst through the wall of the fireplace like an alien out of John Hurt’s chest. Surely, there must be an easier way to make an entrance. Sometimes, he fishes for children by using a nasty-tempered gingerbread man on a hook and chain. Mostly, he has evil deeds carried out by his minions, while he noisily hops around from roof to roof. (Why it is necessary to knock out an entire neighborhood to get at one family is not addressed.) This actually isn’t so bad because his minions — Shrek-refugee CGI gingerbread men to one side — are pretty darn creepy. Krampus — as depicted here — is too big, blocky and awkward to function as much more than a presence.
A much bigger problem is that the film takes nigh on to forever to get started. The opening sequence, with a slow-motion Christmas shopping frenzy — while Bing Crosby sings “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” on the soundtrack — suggests a much sharper seasonal satire the film delivers. Once the plot kicks in — or more correctly, the set-up for the plot — what we get is basically a retread of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). Maybe it’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Goes to Hell. In any case, it’s nothing but an extended — very extended — rehash of the Chevy Chase film (right down to its Advent calendar), albeit tarted up with red state/blue state frippery. Making the age-befuddled aunt (Mae Questal) from the old film into an acid-tongued souse (an admittedly amusing Conchata Ferrell) isn’t much of a change. And it’s all in the service of getting young Max (Emjay Anthony, Chef) to renounce Christmas and bring on Krampus and his mob.
What follows is a sometimes-effective mish-mash of real horror and Beetlejuice (1988) shenanigans. The best part is when the family’s old German granny (Krista Stadler) recounts her story of having encountered (and lost her family to) Krampus in post-WWII Germany. Done in stop-motion, this one stretch has something of the disturbing quality of the pop-up book in last year’s The Babadook. This, however, is only one small part of the film. The genuine nastiness of Krampus’ elves and his jack-in-the-box monster help, but whether any of this makes this some kind of anti-Christmas classic is debatable. There are other interesting points — like Jesus being notably absent and Christmas being described as “all about sacrifice and giving” — but they’re never more than that: interesting. With the exception of Ferrell and Stadler, most of the cast is wasted. By the time Krampus has painted itself into a corner and has to resort to the hoariest trick in the book to get out, it had lost me. (Invoking the ending from the 1953 Invaders from Mars didn’t save it, either, largely because it opts to end on a note of smart-assery rather than nighmarishness.) I didn’t hate it. It’s certainly solidly made, and if you’re cuckoo for Krampus you’ll probably like it, but I doubt I’ll ever revisit the movie. Rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material.