Overqualified cast runs around screaming in misguided Yuletide horror-comedy

KRAMPUS (Michael Dougherty). 98 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (December 4). See listings. Rating: NN

Krampus is a Yuletide horror-comedy that takes its reference points from Joe Dante’s Gremlins and the endless knockoffs that followed. This will be attractive to a certain strain of horror nerd, raised on cool posters for movies that never really delivered on their marketing.

Michael Dougherty’s follow-up to his Halloween horror anthology Trick ’R Treat is more expensive but less expansive, largely taking place in an upper-middle-class home in a wintry suburb where a family has come together to celebrate the holidays.

But their pissy animosity leads sensitive young Max (Chef’s Emjay Anthony) to angrily reject the Christmas spirit, thus summoning St. Nicholas’s “dark shadow,” the fearsome Krampus, who arrives “not to give, but to take.”

Krampus delegates most of that work to his helpers, which is where the movie has the most fun: the creature design, realized by Peter Jackson’s Weta workshop, is nicely icky, reaching back to the slimy, fleshy aesthetic of the monsters created by John Carl Buechler for the low-budget films of pulp producer Charles Band. If you’ve seen Ghoulies, Demonic Toys or any of the Puppet Master movies – or even their VHS cover art – you’ll recognize it instantly.

The problem with Krampus is that it takes itself far too seriously to really sell its comic aspects. You can’t blame the overqualified cast for playing it straight that’s what one is supposed to do in these movies.

Think of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, where the direction and the score steered us towards mordant laughter other than filling his soundtrack with ironically positioned holiday standards, Dougherty doesn’t really find a way to do that. He’s got Rick And Morty’s Justin Roiland and Robot Chicken’s Seth Green to voice some of Krampus’s critters, but all they do is squeak and giggle. It’s a good idea to have them on board, but they’re sorely underutilized.

The same goes for the actors playing the movie’s human characters. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are nicely matched as upscale parents, and David Koechner and Fargo’s Allison Tolman are equally good as their Middle American relations, but as the movie goes on and the stakes get higher, all they can do is run around screaming at every new beastie attack.

The movie’s best moment is a little sequence, midway through the film, in which Max’s sad-eyed German grandmother (Krista Stadler) tells the story of her first encounter with Krampus. Told as an animated flashback, it captures the creepiness and the weird melancholy of the best Christmas horror, with an additional undercurrent of post-war despair.

Those three minutes find a way to make the concept of Krampus both soulful and chilling the rest of the movie strains to find the same balance. If you want to make a Christmas monster movie, you really have to go for it. Jamari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale isn’t going to get knocked off the top of the pile any time soon.

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