“Krampus” is a scary, naughty Christmas treat for you if you are ever tired of those platitudinous Christmas family movies. While its early part looks like a naughtier version of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), it is soon turned into something far darker and naughtier as invaded by a chilly horror premise, and it is sufficiently scary with some morbid sense of humor for our twisted amusement.
After its hilarious opening sequence which satirizes that dreadful frenzy of Christmas shopping season, the movie introduces a suburban family who is about to spend the holiday season with a group of unwelcomed family guests. Sarah (Toni Collette) and her husband Tom (Adam Scott) already shudder at the thought of spending three days with her sister’s family, and we soon see the reason as her sister’s family finally arrives at Sarah and Tom’s home. Although her sister Linda (Allison Tolman) is a fairly nice woman, her husband Howard (David Koechner) is an insufferable loudmouth, and it would be an understatement to say that Linda and Howard’s four children do not get along well with Sarah and Tom’s two kids. In addition, they come with Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell), another family member Sarah does not want to spend the holiday season with at any chance.
Sarah and Tom tries to hold themselves with their hospitality to their family guests, but, of course, things do not go well right from their first family dinner as Max (Emjay Anthony), Sarah and Tom’s son, happens to clash with his two cousins over his letter to Santa Claus. While their conflict causes a very awkward moment for everyone at the table, Max feels angry and humiliated for being taunted for believing in Santa Claus, so he comes to commit a serious act of apostasy against Santa Claus.
He probably thought no one was watching him when he did that, but, alas, a mysterious entity somewhere in the sky senses his naughty deed instantly, and the consequence soon follows. A very heavy snow storm is commenced, and everyone in the house is confounded to discover on the very next morning that they are virtually isolated from outside due to the continuing snow storm. While electricity and phone line are somehow cut off, the surroundings of the house are shrouded in white calmness with no sign of neighborhood people, and then strange things begin to happen.
As it becomes apparent to everyone in the house that something terrible is lurking somewhere outside the house, it looks like Max’s European grandmother (Krista Stadler), who usually speaks in German, knows what is about to happen, and, not so surprisingly, she eventually tells others an old story about Krampus, which can be regarded as Santa Claus’ evil alter ego. Krampus’ main job is punishing anyone who happens to lose their belief in Santa Claus, and, as Max’s grandmother warns, the punishment will not merely be a slap on your naughty ass.
While Krampus’ ominous presence feels more palpable along the plot, the director/co-writer Michael Dougherty steadily dials ups the level of dread via his competent handling of mood and suspense. I liked the way how the mere appearance of a mysterious snowman outside the house leads to a very sinister payoff later in the movie, and I also enjoyed how a suspenseful sequence accompanied with Krampus’ first appearance has an effective moment of shock and awe sprung out of its inevitability. Like that shark in “Jaws” (1975), Krampus is usually kept around the corners of the screen for inducing more fear and suspense, and this ancient spirit certainly looks terrifying and menacing when it fully reveals itself as required by the climactic part of the movie.
Dougherty also throws a number of naughty horror elements into the plot, and they are alternatively scary and amusing. Besides the mangy creatures which are its little helpers, Krampus has a bunch of nasty surprises to be unwrapped for its targets, and, though I will not go into details for not spoiling your entertainment, I can assure you that they are as fun as those vicious moments in “Gremlins” (1984).
Like any good horror films, the movie makes us care about its characters and then fear for them. As watching them cornered and threatened more and more in their perilous situation, we are constantly aware of what is at stake for them, and we come to care about everyone in the house regardless of whether they are likable or not. Skillfully going back and forth between different genre modes as demanded, Toni Collette, Adam Scott, Allison Tolman, and David Koechner often bring some degrees of human depth to their respective characters, and Conchata Ferrell has a small fun with her brash supporting role. In case of Austrian performer Krista Stadler, she has her own moment when her character’s old story is presented through an animation sequence, and that is another nice touch in the movie to mention.
Like “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” (2010), “Krampus” successfully balances itself between comedy and horror, and I found myself more involved in its mood and story than expected during my late afternoon viewing on this Christmas Day. While it was getting chillier and darker outside, my darkened room was lighted only by a candle, and the result was a spooky but fun holiday experience to remember. Maybe you should try that when Christmas comes again.