In 2007, writer-director Michael Dougherty made Trick ‘r Treat, a wonderfully twisted horror debut that Warner Bros. financed — and then refused to release. It was as if the movie was too mean, too witty, too original for them to handle, so they gave up without even trying and sent the thing directly to video, where it became an instant cult classic. Trick ‘r Treat is beloved, so it’s big news that Dougherty has finally made a new film, the Christmas-themed fright flick Krampus. And wonder of wonders, it’s being released to 2,800 screens. For Dougherty, that theater count must be sweet music.
But Krampus, sad to say, is a disappointment. It’s alternately funny and intense (don’t take the wee ones), but never enough of either to form a cohesive whole. Krampus begins with a letter to Santa Claus written by Max (Emjay Anthony), who doesn’t believe in flying reindeer anymore but does hope that sticking to the traditions of the season will have a restorative effect on his parents (Toni Collette and Adam Scott), who are drifting apart. When Max’s spoiled cousins ridicule him, Max rips the letter to shreds and casts the pieces into the night air, thereby summoning the mythological creature, Krampus, “the shadow of Saint Nicholas,” who punishes those who’ve lost their holiday spirit.
The next morning, Max and his family wake to a power outage and a blizzard blanketing the neighborhood. The scariest thing in Krampus isn’t the talon-fingered big guy or his minions — which include demonically possessed stuffed animals and robot toys — but the sight of the frozen suburban landscape (designed by Jules Cook) outside Max’s bedroom window. It’s gorgeous — and, in its people-free stillness, perfectly creepy.
Inside the house, Max’s uncle (David Koechner) battles gingerbread cookies come to life, wielding nail guns and stealing scenes. The sequence is so memorably goofy that the gingerbread gang may end up with its own movie franchise. But if the kitchen is Gremlins-funny, the attic is Insidious-grim, as Max’s parents and his aunt (Allison Tolman) fight to save their children from a kid-eating demon clown and assorted haunted toys. There’s a lot of screaming and rolling around on the floor, but as with much of the film, Dougherty shoots the action so close up that it’s often hard to tell what’s going on.
Over time, Krampus becomes a murky blur — of action and intention. One of Max’s cousins gets sucked up the chimney, which should scare the Santa out of young viewers. The movie sends mixed messages. It’s hard, but gooey, too. Trick ‘r Treat showed that Dougherty has a mean streak (with wit), but with Krampus, he’s clearly been charged with delivering a wide-appeal PG-13 film. In the home stretch, you can feel Dougherty, who wrote the script with Todd Casey and Zach Shields, contorting his way toward a Christmas miracle. It’s a painful thing to witness, but in Hollywood, creators do what they have to do. Horror fans, meanwhile, will be looking forward to the inevitable “unrated” director’s cut.
Directed by Michael Dougherty