You know how a parental declaration of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” always stung more in childhood than a brief burst of rage at a misdeed? In a way, there’s a similar relationship at work with how we engage with film. Sure, an actively terrible film can frustrate you for (hopefully only) 90 minutes or so, but the tougher ones to sit through can sometimes be the works where there’s a hint of promise (be it in premise or the collected group of talents involved) but little to no exploitation of the potential you know is there somewhere. Instead of annoyance at shoddiness, there’s a melancholic brand of boredom that emerges, your interest flat-lining as the film before you rarely expresses much of a pulse itself. You ask yourself, during and after: “Why isn’t this better?” Case in point: Krampus.
In theory, a horror-comedy in which Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman (TV’s Fargo) and Conchata Ferrell (TV’s… everything) fight a manifestation of Christmas evil and his various minions (including several demonic toys, none of which, thankfully, are Minions) should be a lot of fun. And there’s promise beyond the assembled adult leads. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty helmed Trick ‘r Treat (2007), one of the few modern horror anthologies of note and a film that’s gained a considerable cult following, mainly by people baffled that it went straight to DVD.
Aside from the holiday horror connection, Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus have similar aesthetics, largely favouring intriguing, gruesome practical effects over CGI creations; Krampus does have a few of the latter, in the shape of some Gremlins-y gingerbread men, but the considerable increase in budget to play with has mostly been spent on physical spooks and sets. The definite highlight of the film, Krampus‘ production design, is really strong, with an inspired and animated (seemingly stop-motion) flashback about halfway through. So why is nothing else?
The big issue is the discordant tones and styles at work. A third of the film is comedic in the vein of Gremlins, except minus the subversive streak that fueled Joe Dante’s yuletide freakshow and minus an ounce of actual wit; virtually every attempted gag consists of David Koechner doing his David Koechner shtick and exclaiming befuddlement at every turn. Another third is a particularly po-faced brand of horror, odd considering that one of the monsters is a teddy bear, where the only real fright comes from the design of a jack-in-the-box creature that’s like if a clown bred with a snake and the Predator. And then the final third is a mixture of reverential folklore, siege action movie, a snowy Tremors homage, bloodless peril, a child’s wish-gone-wrong fantasy (like North, except, you know, not as bad), and a slow-motion opening credits dig at Black Friday and Christmas consumerism that goes nowhere and has no bearing on the rest of the film’s content.
If one of these fighting threads had been favoured over the others, then Krampus might have been a film worthy of the loving craft found on the technical side of its production. As it is, it’s like a stocking crammed with too many little bits and bobs that came to mind for the stocking-stuffer, ultimately pleasing no one like one or two well-considered big gifts would have.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.