An old Alpine folktale posits that Santa Claus has a dubious adversary: the hoofed and horned Krampus, who punishes misbehaving children instead of giving them gifts. Writer/director Michael Dougherty and his co-screenwriters Todd Casey and Zach Shields take this legend and run with it in the half dimwit-comedy, half creature-feature film Krampus. Yet despite some pretty inventive design work, the flick is neither funny nor scary.
Max (Emjay Anthony) is a grade-schooler enamored with Christmas. He's written a long letter to Santa, and is looking forward to baking cookies with his grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) and rewatching Charlie Brown's TV special. But, much to his dismay, his parents Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette) and older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) have lost interest in the holiday, and are dreading the arrival of their foulmouthed, redneck relatives Howard and Linda (David Koechner and Allison Tolman) and their two tomboy daughters. The families immediately clash when the latter brood arrive two days before Christmas, and things are made even worse by the unexpected appearance of their coarse Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). After an argument at the dinner table, Max retreats to his room, tears apart his letter to Santa, and throws the pieces of it out the window, where the wind carries them into the night sky.
The next day, the family awaken to find that a massive blizzard has knocked out the power in their house. The snowstorm is unrelenting, and tensions begin to run high as a series of creepy occurrences outside cause alarm. Suddenly, the family are thrown into an all-out fight for survival when the evil spirit Krampus and his army of gingerbread minions and horrifying masked monsters descend upon the home, and start picking them off one-by-one.
Dougherty made waves with his acclaimed 2008 Halloween anthology film Trick 'r Treat, and he transfers his focus to the yuletide season with less impressive results in Krampus. The first third of the movie is a bumbling comedy of manners, with the uptight suburban couple of Scott and Collette on one side, and the gun-obsessed Koechner and drunken Ferrell on the other. While some of their interactions might seem familiar to viewers who are forced to reunite with quirky families at Christmastime, this worn-out dynamic has been done far better in other holiday films.
The German-speaking Omi adds a bit of backstory to the movie's folklore, since she confronted Krampus when she was just a girl. This flashback is done in stop-motion animation reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it's a nice reprieve from the idiotic plot line of a family under siege. As for the rest of the film, at least it's interesting to look at: Costume designer Bob Buck and the art department deserve a lot of credit for their work. In particular, Krampus' army of macabre monsters are well-crafted, and the demon himself is an imposing force when he appears. The problem is that he isn't onscreen nearly enough.
Horror-comedies almost always feel like a round peg being not so subtly hammered into a square hole. This is definitely the case with Krampus: A failure at both genres, it's less than the sum of its middling parts. There might be an interesting horror film and a campy comedy to be made about the folklore of Krampus, but Dougherty's awkward amalgamation is neither of them.