Silver Screen: Krampus **1/2
Fans of Carbondale’s late, lamented Bourbon Knights have been hip to Krampus for a while. The B.K. members threw a holiday party or two at the Hangar 9 celebrating Santa Claus’s dark counterpart, a devilish figure who doles out punishment to bad children who don’t make the Nice List.
A decade or so later, Hollywood finally got wise to what the ‘Dale’s beloved pirate-swing band already knew: Krampus is perfect holiday counterprogramming, the salty to complement the sweet. Michael Dougherty’s horror/comedy take on the legend is an attempt at just such a Yuletide treat, but there’s an imbalance among the ingredients.
For those not in the know, Krampus is a figure from Austrian folklore who shows up around Christmastime. Depending on your preferred riff on the legend, he either shows up with a washtub and drowns children, or puts them in a sack and drags them to Hell.
If that seems harsh, consider that Austria knows a little something about bad children who grow up to do very bad things.
The children of the Engel family bring Krampus down upon them, but it’s their misbehaving parents who set the example. The WASPy clan, which includes ineffectual father Tom (Adam Scott), perfectionist mom Sarah (Toni Collette), teen sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), and her little brother Max (Emjay Anthony), are bunkering down for another family Christmas clash. Their brittle façade barely holds up even before aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) shows up with her boorish hick husband Howard (David Koechner), a Trump supporter if ever there was one, along with their own brood of dimwitted, mean-spirited kids.
The familial squabbling causes Max to lose his faith in Christmas, which summons the Anti-Claus. Only old-world grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) is aware of the looming danger when a mysterious blizzard cuts the family off from their suburban neighbors, and strange creatures— Krampus’s helpers— start dragging family members off into the night one by one.
Dougherty is responsible for a darker holiday movie, the mini-cult-hit Trick ‘r Treat, a nifty little Halloween film that spikes an occasionally gruesome horror anthology with black humor. His take on Krampus falls somewhere on this spectrum, listing a bit further toward comedy. In its best moments it recalls the twisted Xmas spirit of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which scarred as many tots as it delighted back in the 1980s.
Krampus isn’t nearly so effective, largely because the movie lacks an emotional center. The cast is strong; all the adults are comedy veterans or, in Collette’s case, a real-deal Serious Actor. Even the kids are pretty good, particularly Emjay Anthony, who was naturally charming as Jon Favreau’s son in Chef. But they’re playing caricatures, not characters, and the family feuding plays like a generic hyperbole of how Coastal folk imagine unhappy Midwesterners to behave. As a consequence, the jokes are too broad to inflict any real damage, and we’re not terribly concerned if any or all of them are dragged to Hell/drowned via washtub. (Spoiler alert: There is no washtub.)
Perhaps the PG-13 rating hinders a comedy that’s supposed to be about bad behavior. It certainly curtails the horror, which unsuccessfully alternates between cartoonish chaos and more straightforward creature-feature frights. You could forgive the jokes for a little lameness if the scares were significant, or you could write off the mostly ineffectual horror if the laughs came faster, but not both.
Which isn’t to say Krampus is unpleasant to watch. Dougherty sneaks in enough funny lines and a couple of freaky images, not to mention a Twilight Zone-style ending. It’s enough to make it an appealing alternative if you’re cloistered indoors with your own family, but not enough to justify a treacherous sleigh ride to the nearest multiplex.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.