THIS CRITIQUE CONTAINS MULTIPLE MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE KRAMPUS, INCLUDING THE ENDING.
Michael Dougherty’s Krampus was an excellent concept that stumbled on execution, due in large part to the ending. It was a film I really wanted to love, and it was for the most part and enjoyable movie. But there were a few things that really dragged down what could have been a holiday horror classic.
Krampus chose to walk a fine line between humor and horror. Think Return of the Living Dead rather than Night of the Living Dead. In and of itself, that wasn’t a poor choice. Humor and horror have usually paired well with each other. But towards the end, the humor in Krampus often dulls the fangs of what should be more climactic and emotion-driven scenes.
The film opens with a long slow-motion montage of Black Friday mayhem in a large store, with people beating each other senseless to the incongruous yet highly effective Christmas music. Though at first it merely seemed like a funny way to encapsulate the already morbid turn Christmas has come to take in our society, it was brilliant setup for the story to come.
The festive carnage enacted by grim-faced consumers segued into the aftermath of a fight between Max–one of the main protagonists–and a classmate who spoiled Christmas for younger kids by telling them Santa wasn’t real. Max tries to explain to his mom his reason for getting into the fight, but his defense of the Christmas spirit by engaging in fisticuffs doesn’t exactly engender her sympathy, especially as she is preparing for the onslaught of a visit from her sister’s difficult family.
The sister, Linda, and her husband Howard are the typical Christmas movie ‘redneck relatives.’ Their entire family was cribbed rather heavily from movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (albeit much surlier) but the acting was good enough to save the concept from being too cheesy. Max’s cousins bully him mercilessly, leading him to shred his letter to Santa and toss the pieces out of the window.
The next morning, the family awakens to a blizzard and power outage. Max’s teenage sister Beth, for some unfathomable reason, is allowed to leave the house and go check on her boyfriend several blocks away. She ends up running for her life from Krampus only to be attacked by a “present” he leaves behind just as she thinks he’s abandoned his pursuit.
Beth’s encounter with the jack-in-the-box was an excellent teaser that ultimately failed to deliver. We were set up to believe, “Well, this is serious. Kids can die in this movie.” But Dougherty didn’t commit to that, instead leaving anyone who fell victim to the minions of Krampus in an underwhelming limbo. Beth, as it transpired, wasn’t dead (supposedly?), being heard shrieking off-screen when her father and uncle managed to dredge up enough enthusiasm to go look for her.
This wouldn’t even have been the worst of it, but the adults in the film never seemed to take the disappearance of Beth nearly as seriously as they should have. The audience takes its cues from the characters in situations like this. The parents failed to treat the disappearances of the kids with urgency, and so that lack of urgency was passed on to the audience. When we realized that the kids were likely not dead but merely captive, there was virtually no sense of relief because their captures had been thoroughly downplayed and upstaged by other events at every turn.
This error in judgement comes, I think, from the characters being written as if they had the filmmaker’s knowledge of how events would turn out, rather than as parents whose children had been taken by unspeakable monsters. Despite repeated silly posturing from her uncle Howard to her father Tom about how “a shepherd takes care of his flock,” both men were content to abandon their search for Beth after returning to the safety of the house, despite a) hearing her screaming and b) encountering a mysterious creature in the snow that brutally savaged Howard. Her mother and aunt seemed equally blasé about leaving her to fend for herself in a blizzard stalked by monsters.
While the parents reacted a little more believably to the losses of the other children, the treatment of Beth set up an unfortunate precedent in how the audience should expect to feel after such events. The loss of several of Howard and Linda’s kids was then rather upstaged due to being followed by an admittedly hilarious scene where Howard was chased through the kitchen by psychotic murderous gingerbread men wielding a nail gun. The other adults encountered similarly humorous monster toys including a savage teddy bear, a spooky angelic doll, and a red-eyed robot of some kind.
Eventually we learn about Krampus from Max’s grandmother, Omi. Relayed in an animated segment that couldn’t quite decide between two different visual styles, Omi tells of when she was a little girl and unwittingly set Krampus after her entire town because they had forgotten the spirit of Christmas.
After Krampus eliminates the rest of Max’s family, he confronts the monster, first offering to sacrifice himself. When Krampus merely laughs and has his cousin thrown in a fiery pit, he says the magic words: I’m sorry.
And in the worst move I’ve seen from any movie in recent memory, the reset button was hit and everything that the audience spent and hour and half watching was relegated to being little more than a big dream sequence. The Doughtry tried to offset this by having Max receive a bell with Krampus’s name etched on it, but it was far too little, too late. It’s hard to imagine repeated viewings of this movie will be very enjoyable when the audience knows that there were zero lasting consequences and that all the characters would wake up to a happy Christmas morning of unwrapping presents.