I want this to be a post where I do nothing but gush about how great Krampus is, but it isn’t going to be. I liked Krampus a lot, but don’t think I quite loved it. That said, I felt similarly about Trick ‘R Treat the first time I watched it, and it has done nothing but grow on me with time and repeated viewings, so there’s a good chance that Krampus may well do the same.
There’s a lot to love in Krampus. It starts out strong with a slow-motion-to-the-point-of-wax-museum sequence of Christmas shoppers laying waste to a department store that goes a long way toward establishing the tone of the movie before a line of dialogue has been spoken. If the satire managed to remain as on-point as in that sequence, we’d probably be looking at an instant classic a la Gremlins.
Michael Dougherty and company also dump more monsters into Krampus‘ relatively brief 98 minutes than any dozen normal films, a feat that’s particularly welcome in a relatively low-budget flick that could have easily rested on its titular Christmas demon without anyone complaining too much. Even the snowmen, which, somewhat sadly, never do more than appear mysteriously in the yard and look creepy, almost feel like additional, if entirely inanimate, monsters. The fact that the majority of the film’s creatures are practical effects rather than CGI only adds to their appeal.
While the cast doesn’t boast a lot of star power, the film’s human moments succeed at least as well as its creature ones do, thanks in part to taking the time to give the characters small beats of warmth and humanity in the midst of the film’s anarchy of monster attacks and seasonal magic of the less warm fuzzy kind.
Most of all, Krampus is simply a special kind of movie, a kind that is near-and-dear to my heart, and that we don’t get too often anymore. A monster movie made without cynicism, with affection for itself and for the genre, one that revels in what it is and loves its setting and its characters and its conceits.
What is perhaps most frustrating about Krampus is that it feels, at every turn, like a movie that is just a few short steps away from being great. The human moments breathe life into the characters, but never feel like they’re completely paid off. The monsters look great, with the possible exception of the unfortunately CGed gingerbread men, and are occasionally ingenious–such as the legitimately terrifying jack-in-the-box worm–but all feel like they need just a little bit more personality than they ever get. Even Krampus himself, who is a stunning piece of design with his heavy hooves and his massive, hunched frame and his twisted old man face, is every bit as intimidating as he needs to be, but feels just one nudge shy of truly coming to life in the way that, say, Sam does in Trick ‘R Treat.
For all its good qualities, Krampus seems bound to suffer in proximity to Trick ‘R Treat and Gremlins due to these many near-misses. This may be partly because, for all its gore and hard R rating, Trick ‘R Treat feels more playful in its mayhem than Krampus ever does. Trick ‘R Treat drew apt comparisons to an Amblin Entertainment movie gone to the dark side, and Krampus seemed like an opportunity for Michael Dougherty to fully embrace his inner Joe Dante. For all of Krampus‘ jokiness, though, Dougherty’s dark side feels considerably rougher than Dante’s.
Upon first viewing, Krampus seems like a really good movie with a great movie lying just beside it, or beneath it. What time will tell is if that great movie is forever out of reach, or if it has, in fact, been inside Krampus all along, just waiting for successive viewings to bring it out…