The holidays go to hell in “Krampus,” a feel-bad Christmastime fable helmed with moderate black humor but too few scares by “Trick ‘r Treat” director Michael Dougherty. Opening with Bing Crosby crooning “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” while shoppers stream into a big-box retailer and engage in the hysterical combativeness that’s become an annual November-December retail tradition, Dougherty’s film sets a bleak tone that continues once his gaze turns to the inner workings of a suburban family’s poinsettia and wreath-decorated home. There, the mood is anything but jolly, as dad David (Adam Scott) and mom Sarah (Toni Collette) are cold to each other, daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie) is more interested in her boyfriend than Yuletide festivities, and son Max (Emjay Anthony) finds that his continued belief in Santa Claus earns him only condescending eye-rolls — save, that is, from his cookie-baking German grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler).
This unhappy clan’s seasonal spirit is further undermined by the arrival of Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her gun-loving husband Howard (David Koechner), their portly and mute son (Maverick Flack) and two tomboy daughters (Lolo Owen and Queenie Samuel) and their rude, crass aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). Dougherty sketches these contentious dynamics in swift, confident lines, culminating with a dinner in which barbs are tossed, resentments are aired, and Max’s letter to Santa Claus — in which he wishes for greater joy and unity for his family — is mockingly read aloud. That’s the final straw for Max, who tears his North Pole-bound note to shreds and tosses it out his window, thereby unwittingly inviting the wrath of an ancient demon known as Krampus.
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Before long, the town is encased in a blizzard, Beth goes missing after trying to walk through the storm to her boyfriend’s house — after encountering a hulking rooftop-leaping creature — and the men of the house venture out on a foolhardy recon-and-rescue mission. “Krampus” hits these narrative beats effectively enough, though even at this relatively early stage, it’s all-too-clear where the material is heading. Consequently, there’s little suspense generated by the ensuing set pieces in which various family members are forced to confront unholy holiday-objects-gone-evil, from a ferocious teddy bear and malevolent gingerbread men to a gigantic Jack-in-the-box that boasts a demented china-doll face replete with a bloody maw into which it stuffs its victims.
Like his prior “Creepshow”-inspired “Trick ‘r Treat,” Dougherty’s latest also feels indebted to an ‘80s classic, with its twisted-festivities vibe at least partly reminiscent of Joe Dante’s “Gremlins.” Unfortunately, the narrow scope of his story — which is primarily set inside the characters’ abode — makes the film feel akin to a Christmas-themed home invasion thriller minus the surprises. The film’s lack of terror might be more forgivable had it embraced its more humorous inclinations, but the script’s pedestrian liberals-vs.-conservatives, boors-vs.-yuppies conflicts rarely result in anything laugh-out-loud funny. Instead, after arguments about firearms and gibes about Martha Stewart, the proceedings almost wholly discard comedy — a particularly dispiriting decision given that it squanders Scott, Collette, Koechner and Tolman in standard-issue panicked-adult roles.
As explained in a perfunctory CG-animated flashback to Omi’s childhood encounter with the fiend, Krampus has materialized to punish those who’ve given up on the holiday spirit of generosity and compassion. Thus it’s only a matter of time before the film is implying that this crisis will teach the family how to regain their lost togetherness. Alas, that narrative thread is rendered superfluous by a script (by Dougherty, Todd Casey, and Zach Shields) that winds up focusing its energy on doing away with characters at a rapid clip. After remaining hidden for the tale’s first two-thirds, Krampus turns out to be a formidable “shadow” of St. Nick, a hunched-back, cloven-hoofed beast with long fingernails, a longer tongue, and even longer horns. No matter his impressive appearance, however, he’s a rather ho-hum villain whose negligible personality and flair — most of his naughty deeds are carried out by shrieking elves — means that even the climactic pay-offs fall flat. Worse still, a postscript sequence ends things on such a perfectly creepy note that it leaves one imagining, and craving, the far more amusing and terrifying saga that “Krampus” could have been. [C+]