In 2009, after two years of senseless delays courtesy of a woefully misguided Warner Bros. Pictures, writer-director Michael Dougherty finally saw the release of his acclaimed interwoven anthology "Trick 'r Treat
." A beautifully mounted ode to EC Comics and an unabashed love letter to All Hallows' Eve, the film not only brought legitimate fun back to a genre that, at the time, had grown mighty dark and tonally despairing with the "Saw
" and "Hostel
" series, but it left those viewers who saw it scratching their heads over why it was put on the shelf for so long before getting unceremoniously dumped directly to video. Six years later, Dougherty's feverishly anticipated follow-up, "Krampus," has actually gotten the wide theatrical bow "Trick 'r Treat
" deserved, but with an injustice of its own: distributor Universal Pictures has opened it cold to critics, opting to forego advanced press screenings for what is, ultimately, one of the most auspicious studio-produced horror pictures of the year.
Pre-teen Max Engel (Emjay Anthony) may be getting too old to believe in Santa Claus, but it is a piece of his childhood to which he has continued to cling. Unfortunately, his recent Christmases have not been like the ones he used to know. Parents Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) have begun to drift apart, once-close older sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) spends more time with her boyfriend than with him, and, worst of all, his house is overrun by Aunt Linda (Allison Tolman) and her loutish, ungrateful familyamong them, the Cousin Eddie-ish Uncle Howard (David Koechner) and their brood of bratty, fast-multiplying kids. When tomboy cousin Stevie (Lolo Owen) embarrasses him by reading his letter to Santa, it is the catalyst for his loss of holiday spirit. In a moment of frustration and anger, he rips up his good-hearted note and sends it off into the snowy night skyan event that summons Krampus, a demonic figure of Alpine folklore whom his immigrant grandmother, Omi (Krista Stadler), knows all too well. With the power out and a blizzard barreling down outside, Max and his family are about to find themselves battling for their lives as December 25 draws near.
The shadow of St. Nicholas is alive and well in 2015, appearing memorably in "A Christmas Horror Story
" and now in the touchingly macabre "Krampus." Director Michael Dougherty and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields have outdone themselves in imagining a creeptastic legend that has largely gone untapped in cinema. Opening as a barbed satire of consumerist greed, modern-day cynicism and suburban ennui before growing a heart just as its cast starts getting knocked off, the film is a precarious balancing act that pays off in spades. As dark as a lump of coal but dripping with human compassion, it retains a sense of nightmarish whimsy similar to 1984's "Gremlins" but with the malevolence meter cranked up another couple notches.
Capturing the looking-glass world his characters are suddenly thrust into with bold details and frostily brooding visual touches, Dougherty always seems to be challenging and amusing himself. The enthusiasm he and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin (2011's "Sanctum
") exhibit proves infectious, helping to smooth over the occasional rough patches. The pacing of the middle half-hour could have afforded some tightening, while the editing of a few key showdowns pitting the family members against everything from gingerbread men to a man-eating Jack in the Box to a sharp-toothed teddy bear to a particularly vicious sugarplum fairy is too unruly and frantic at times for its own good. Not every character action is entirely sound, nor is the obvious sanitation of the language to earn a PG-13 rating. When a fed-up Linda calls the hellish toys "fudgers" during a moment of self-empowerment, for example, it softens the impact. Even if this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ralphie's profanity slip in 1983's "A Christmas Story," it still comes off as the doing of a corporate head rather than a specific creative choice on Dougherty's part. Fortunately, the filmmaker appears to have won most of his battles, starting with a screenplay that takes so many chances and breaks so many conventions it's practically a miracle it got made at all.
If 1989's "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" saw the dysfunctional, madcap misadventures of the Griswold clan interrupted by a giant horned monster and his gaggle of murderous toys and evil elves, it would uncannily resemble "Krampus." Never at a loss for ingenuity, the film reinvents itself with each new devious curveball and reveal. As for a second-act flashback told via moving storybook illustrations and Rankin & Bass-style animation, its delivery is as surprising as it is exquisitely realized. Even the casting of its ensemble defy expectations, with Emjay Anthony (2014's "Chef
") a heart-on-his-sleeve standout as young Max and Adam Scott (2015's "Black Mass
"), Toni Collette (2015's "Miss You Already
"), Allison Tolman (2015's "The Gift
"), David Koechner (2013's "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
") and Conchata Ferrell (2008's "Kabluey
"), as stubborn, unfiltered Great Aunt Dorothy, giving color to their roles. When "Krampus" arrives at its gut-punch conclusion, it's worth the wait, Dougherty's bittersweet tugging of heartstrings but a sinister mask for the chilling insinuations yet to come. Stay for the end credits, too; the revisionist take on "Carol of the Bells," titled "Krampus Karol of the Bells," is the delicious bow on top of a wickedly good big-screen Christmas offering. As far as mass-market studio horror goes, there hasn't been anything quite like this in some timea movie unafraid to be quirky, goofy, forlorn, magical and spine-tingling all at once.