Filmmaker Michael Dougherty made quite an impact with his anthology horror movie Trick 'r' Treat all the way back in 2007, but the writer-director seemingly disappeared after the release of that cult gem, despite showing tremendous genre talents. 2015's Krampus is Dougherty's long overdue follow-up endeavour, and it combines the dysfunctional family antics of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with the horror film sensibilities of Joe Dante's Gremlins and the Euro eccentricity of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Comparisons to Gremlins are inevitable, as Dougherty establishes a distinct throwback vibe, relying on practical effects as much as possible, making smart use of the modest budget at his disposal. Krampus may be PG-13, but don't let the docile rating fool you - Dougherty delivers the freaky goods with reassuring confidence.
December 25 is approaching in suburbia, and pre-teen Max (Emjay Anthony) is finding it hard to maintain his Christmas spirit. His father Tom (Adam Scott) is a workaholic, while his mother Sarah (Toni Collette) is anal retentive as she prepares for the arrival of their extended family. Stomping into the house are Linda (Allison Tolman), her husband Howard (David Koechner), and their bratty kids, on top of the horrendously rude Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). When Max's cousins find his good-hearted letter to Santa Claus and openly mock him for it, Max rips up the note in a moment of frustration and tosses it out into the snowy night. However, this act inadvertently summons Krampus, a demonic figure of Alpine folklore whom Max's immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) is all too familiar with. As a colossal blizzard moves in, the family become trapped inside the house as they're gradually picked off by Krampus and his ghoulish minions.
Instantly announcing itself as the antithesis of standard Hollywood Christmas movies, Krampus opens with an inspired montage showing the madness that occurs when holiday shoppers rush into department stores on Black Friday. Unfolding entirely in slow motion, Dougherty focuses on the frantic customers who get into fights with one another and trample on the fallen, driven by rampant consumerism. It's a brilliantly provocative opening scene, even playing out to the tune of Andy Williams' "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and it underscores that Christmas cheer is perhaps not quite what it used to be once upon a time. If there's a flaw with Dougherty's storytelling, it's that the movie does drag during its opening act, with the material involving the extended family never quite gaining much comedic traction. And when Krampus does come out to play, the moments of respite are overly hit and miss, with uneven pacing.
In its second half, Krampus transitions into a home invasion tale, and the ensuing attack scenes are consistently thrilling, establishing a Gremlins-esque tone of comedic mayhem. There's an underlying streak of dark humour which saves the flick from abject bleakness, and - much like with Trick 'r' Treat - Dougherty exhibits firm command of the screen, aided to no small degree by cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin. Krampus embraces practical effects as well, giving vivid life to the hair-raising creatures through elaborate costumes and puppetry, affording an '80s horror flick feel and adding a sense of tangibility to the nightmare. The digital gingerbread men aren't quite convincing, and do look slightly out of place, but the rest of the titular demon's minions are thankfully more tactile. And just to reinforce the throwback feel, there's a flashback sequence told using Rankin and Bass-style stop-motion animation in which Omi reveals her childhood experience with Krampus in Germany. It's a nice touch indeed. Krampus is more unnerving than outright terrifying, but it's a skilful ride all the same.
Performances are suitably convincing right down the line, especially with the likes of Scott and Collette who are watchable in anything, while Koechner makes a positive impression playing a redneck stereotype. The chaos eventually culminates for a shrewd ending that rejects many of the more obvious story resolutions, and even leaves things open for interpretation. Not everything works in Krampus, but it does breathe fresh cinematic life into a creepy Christmas legend. It might become a new annual film-watching tradition at Christmas for the same folks who enjoy the more unorthodox holiday movies like Bad Santa and Die Hard.