Michael Dougherty deserves all the money he can bamboozle from Hollywood. Thus, Krampus, regardless of quality, is only fair. Only his second feature film release, it enters the world long after his first film Trick ‘r Treat was unceremoniously denied an impending theatrical release and was banished to the no man’s land of straight-to-DVD horror.
One has to give it up to Universal for giving him a second shot, and going out on a limb. Holiday horror is not exactly verboten in cinema land; a quick perusal through the danker regions of the cinema reveals a questionable lineage of would-be Santa slay rides dating back to the 1970s. Still, one can understand the iciness of the idea; no film in the interim has managed to recapture a fraction of the lump-of-coal energy of the original Christmas horror film, Black Christmas from 1974. Krampus is the highest profile such release in quite a while, and it does its share to restore some of the good (bad?) name to a never-really-venerable sub-genre. So, as I said, Dougherty (who co-wrote X-Men 2 with Bryan Singer and will return for next year’s Apocalypse) deserves his passion projects. But that doesn’t mean a little Hollywood money can’t get to your head.
With Krampus, the money seemed to have tricked Dougherty into including a surfeit of broad comedy that doesn’t mold well to the vision of his devilishly cunning Trick ‘r Treat. The easy classism inherent to the set-up, where a well-to-do suburbanite family headed by Adam Scott and Toni Collette is forced to endure Christmas with their overbearing Redneck relatives, veers perilously close to sitcom also-ran material. Dougherty is transfixed with the Sam Raimi’s and Joe Dante’s of the world – not bad reference points, for Sam Raimi and Joe Dante seem to have forgotten how to be their best selves in recent years. So he enjoys his holiday cookies with sugar and spice, and he is committed to stirring a little warped comedy into his horror cinema. Admirable, but even the introductory ironic credit crawl superimposed over slow-motion Black Friday shoppers nearly killing one another over gifts is cloyingly obvious.
The comedy, as it were, frequently sits on top of Dougherty’s film like artificial confectioner’s sugar molded into a garish bowtie rather than melding into the dough like a good gingerbread man. The best humor should be weightless, and Krampus telegraphs nearly every joke – the first third of the film is depressingly arid of thoughtful laughs. So much so, in fact, that it runs out of steam early, and a new, darker energy steamrolls over the film like a forbidden blizzard nurturing cruel snowmen in the yard and sapping the lights along with it. Like, I said, but that is what happens when Krampus rolls into town and the real film follows him. The gee-willickers suburb undergoes Jules O’ Loughlin’s ethereal, ghostly cinematography and suddenly the more feral, wraithlike underbelly of the plastic sitcom world is left out to play.
Within this cruel, indifferent cinematic sandbox, Krampus is the nastiest bully of all. In a lovingly detailed, expressionistic stop-motion sequence recounted by gravidly earnest Krista Stadler (the best member of the cast), the film both regales the tale of Saint Nicholas’ evil shadow and pays homage to its cinematic ancestors; the sequence recalls Lotte Reiniger’s lustrous classic animation features from the Weimar republic such as The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Here, and elsewhere, the film references the spirit of Alpine folklore and the cinema of the region – primarily German silent films that were themselves rooted in an almost mystical connection to the well of history. The invective Krampus, it seems, does not play around, and although Dougherty’s framing is not as cannily effective as it was in Trick ‘r Treat, the film’s indifferently twee earlier scenes melt away in a viscous pool of expressionist imagery and nasty playthings run amok amidst Dougherty’s wintry anti-wonderland.
As with any good horror film, the worse things are for the protagonists, they better they are for the audience, and it is only when the persnickety but natural slippery slope from family quarrels to rampant murder comes to be that Krampus alights with spirited discomfort. The material never keels into sadism, but the surprise of Krampus is that it marinates its holiday horror in dirge-like malevolence, invoking the name of Krampus like a pact with the devil. This is horror with a smirk, yes, but never an ironic twiddle or a knowing finger wave. Krampus, like Krampus, means business.