In theory, Krampus — the new Christmas-themed horror film centered on the demonic Santa Claus himself — should be a terrifically nasty little piece of Christmas anti-cheer, a Gremlins for a new era.
On paper, the movie does everything right. It starts by setting up believable, interesting characters. Sure, they might seem ripped from political email forwards (the uptight Blue Staters versus the crude and crass Red Staters), but we all have That Family Member we don't want to see at the holidays, and in bringing many of them together for the holidays, Krampus has found a lean and mean way of getting to that idea. Plus, they're played by fine, funny actors, like Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.
From there, Krampus lays out a pretty good human conflict for a Christmas movie — this family is at each other's throats. When one little boy tosses his letter to Santa out the window, having lost all belief in the guy in the red suit, his wish is seemingly answered by a giant blizzard, some creepy snowmen, and a ghastly silhouette that races atop nearby rooftops.
Plus, the design of Krampus himself and his twisted, Christmassy helpers (who take the form of monstrous gingerbread cookies, toys, and elves) is really great, and director Michael Dougherty does a nice job of revealing Krampus very, very gradually throughout the film. Dougherty also comes up with some visually inventive moments — like a flashback told in Rankin/Bass stop-motion style.
And finally, setting a horror film in a blizzard is just a great notion, which leads to some very scary sequences.
So why doesn't this movie work? There's one simple reason.
Krampus makes one big, ultimately fatal error
The source of all of Krampus's failings is that it waits until very late in its run time to unveil the story's stakes and the "rules" of how Krampus works. Indeed, it waits until very late to even say the word "Krampus," despite one of the characters being an old woman who has a personal history with the demon. In particular, it's not clear how the child who wrote to Santa managed to invoke Krampus's wrath, what's happening to his family members when they're "taken," and whether said family members are gone for good.
Without all of this, it's never entirely clear what's happening, a problem that's exacerbated by the way Dougherty and editor David Axelrad cut many of the film's monster attacks to ribbons — presumably to pull back on the gore and earn the movie a PG-13 rating. As a result, the monster attacks are just sorta there, disconnected from everything else that happens and floating around without much of a point.
I suspect Dougherty was hoping that the title of the film would give the audience enough to go on until he revealed the full Krampus story. When that moment finally arrives, it yields one of the film's best sequences — but it's the very definition of too little, too late.
Obviously, a horror film doesn't need to have ironclad rules. Earlier this year, It Follows evoked terror via mood more than plot, and it was terrific. But in a movie centered on one very concrete monster with very concrete aims, it's best to get those aims out in the open up front, in as simple and basic a fashion as possible. Krampus obfuscates for too long, then underexplains when it comes time to lay out what's happening, and that downfall can't be overcome.
The film does feature a nicely handled ending — one that flirts with just about every cliché of a bad ending before landing on just the right one — and that may win back some of viewers' favor (it did for me). But Krampus is ultimately that rare thing — a potentially really good movie undone by one glaring Achilles heel.
Krampus is playing throughout the country.