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Krampus (2015)

Do They Know it's Krampus Time?

Someday, writer/director Michael Dougherty will have an original idea for a horror movie. When that moment comes, I have no doubt he'll set in motion another much-needed genre renaissance. Until then, we're stuck with the ornate but flimsy nostalgia blankets Trick 'R Treat and Krampus--two films that can't quite shake the spectre of Dougherty's ridiculously obvious influences.

Don't get me wrong: all filmmakers stand on the shoulders of giants. But so far, Dougherty's attempts to evoke the films of his childhood have mostly involved copying those movies instead of digging into the heart of what made them successful to begin with. It's the difference between a layperson slavishly tracing over a drawing, and a professional inker who knows that improvisation is the path to creative breakthroughs.

With Krampus, Dougherty and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields aspire to the mantle of "Family Horror" made famous by Gremlins thirty years ago. Unfortunately, they shoehorn in several naked tributes to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and The Mist.

Eleven-year-old Max (Emjay Anthony) really wants his family to experience some holiday magic. Dad (Adam Scott) is a workaholic; Mom (Toni Collette) is a frustrated homemaker; Sis (Stefania LaVie Owen) is a boy-crazy snot; and Grandma (Krista Stadler) is an elderly German lady whose cookies are as sweet as her secrets are dark. Though tired as all hell, the family dynamic works, thanks to the actors' earnestness and the screenplay's desire to give them a shade more dimension than the Griswolds. An early scene between father and son allows Scott to convey a level of exhausted bewilderment that we don't usually see in mainstream-movie dads: his character, Tom, is just as annoyed by the holidays' forced-family dynamics as his son. Krampus begins on a confident footing that suggests we'll see real terror visited upon real (or real enough) people.

Then the in-laws show up. I don't know how much money the fine folks at Universal had to shell out to keep lawsuits at bay, but when David Koechner bursts through the door as lumbering, slovenly Uncle Howard, all I could see was an off-brand Cousin Eddie. Dougherty doubles down on the "homage" with Howard's about-to-crack wife (Allison Tolman); burdensome, belligerent aunt (Conchata Ferrell), feral pack of hateful, half-wit children, and a really obnoxious dog. I don't blame Max for angrily denouncing Santa Claus: saddled with this seventh-generation Xerox of iconic characters almost made me a non-believer, too.

On the plus side, the universe hears Max's protest and unleashes the "Shadow of St. Nicholas" on his town. A pea-soup fog rolls in, creepy snowmen show up in the front yard, and a shadowy, chain-wielding buffalo/goat wreaks havoc on the family--with the help of cuddly holiday icons who've taken on a gleefully perverse second life. Soon, everyone takes up arms against evil gingerbread men, a Tremors-inspired Jack-in-the-Box, and a snow angel straight out of Full Moon Pictures. Much of Krampus is derivative and predictable, and suffers from a momentum deficit that distends its reasonable run-time into a teasing, stop-and-start slog.

There's no better example of this than the film's last fifteen minutes. Without getting spoiler-y, I'll say that the remaining characters encounter even more peril that leaves Max with some hard decisions to make. He squares off against Krampus in a resolution that's at once touching and sinister. Dougherty and company pull the rug out, though, hurling us into a cruelly dark ending. The movie doesn't stop there, of course, as the writers artificially twist their story into a happy red bow that we can take out of the theatre. Or do they? Yep, here comes another twist (and another, if you count the visual gag at the very end), which softens the previous moment's already tenuous emotional impact.

Dougherty should have chosen one adventure, not all of them. But that's par for the course for a guy who tends to push every element of his films a tad too far--straying from nostalgia to camp, genuine horror to horror-movie horror.

This lack of discipline and/or discernment cheapens what could have been (with a few key walk-backs) a really effective holiday thriller--one that kids might watch on repeat at sleepovers. The practical creatures are well executed, but their designs seem inspired by Hot Topic Halloween clearance--cool and kind of fun, but calculated to sell you something other than skin-crawling scares. An animated flashback late in the film feels calculated, too; the interlude is gorgeous, but I got the impression it was included to get people talking about it, rather than engage them in the mini-story it was trying to tell.

Believe it or not, I like a lot about Krampus. There's just not enough for me to recommend it as more than a rental. The film is lit and designed within and inch of its life, completing the Hallmark of Horrors look I'm sure Dougherty had intended. The performances are uniformly solid, but largely not as inspired as the roles and actors that made them possible. As with Creed, another recent film about domineering shadows, Krampus' inventiveness and potential are restrained by a too-familiar template. It's the big, shiny present from a distant aunt that you unwrap with reckless abandon--only to discover she got you the same thing last year.

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