Disillusioned with his dysfunctional extended family, young Max (Anthony) tears up his letter to Santa — invoking Krampus (Emery), the vindictive dark shadow of Father Christmas, who turns up with his minions to terrorise Max’s family over the holidays.
All the way back to Dickens, the best Christmas stories — It’s A Wonderful Life, Gremlins, Die Hard, Bad Santa — combine cynicism and sentiment. Krampus delivers this mix perfectly from its stunning opening, slo-mo consumerist riots at the mall accompanied by Bing Crosby’s It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, before turning into a siege-type horror that effectively melds the set-ups of Christmas Vacation and The Mist.
Like Scrooge, the clan learn lessons about the meaning of Christmas while tormented by the supernatural.
After deft thumbnail sketches of the young hero’s fairly awful folks — played just on the right side of caricature by Adam Scott (overworked Dad), Toni Collette (wound too-tight Mom), David Koechner (overbearing uncle), Allison Tolman (crass aunt) and Conchata Ferrell (drunken boorish great-aunt) — the fateful wish is made, and extreme winter falls on the neighbourhood. The German granny (Krista Stadler) who knows what to expect keeps the fire going to prevent the hoofed and horned Krampus from coming down the chimney, while the house is attacked by creatures out of Clive Barker’s Advent calendar: lurking snowmen, a feral Christmas tree angel, murderous elves, a python-like, child-eating jack-in-the-box clown and malicious gingerbread men.
It feels a little like Charles Band’s VHS-era little-creature horror comics (Ghoulies, Troll, Puppet Master) redone with state-of-the-art effects, as writer-director Michael Dougherty (of Hallowe’en favourite Trick ’r Treat) balances gruesome chuckles with genuine creepiness, seductively inventive cinema (including an animated fable backstory) and a welcome touch of warmth. Though set up as stereotypes, the characters change when the horrors start. Like Scrooge, the clan learn lessons about the meaning of Christmas while tormented by the supernatural, and against the odds Dougherty shows awful but understandable people getting past resentments and irritations to band together (however ineffectually) against Krampus and his cronies.
A well-above-average ho-ho-ho-horror film with a shivery sense of winter weirdland and anarchic ultra-violence, it’s also a strong candidate to become a holiday favourite thanks to a perfectly judged punchline.