“KRAMPUS” — 2½ stars — Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Gideon Emery, Emjay Anthony; PG-13 (sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material); in general release
When the purest among us finally lose hope, we are ripe for destruction. That’s the macabre message of “Krampus,” a bizarre B-movie horror take on “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
Krampus sounds like the kind of monster that comes when you swim too soon after a big meal, but it’s actually a demon from Germanic folklore. The “Shadow of St. Nicholas” is unleashed when a frustrated youngster named Max (Emjay Anthony) tears up his letter to Santa Claus during a particularly miserable family Christmas.
Max’s parents, Tom and Sarah (Adam Scott and Toni Collette), are having marriage problems, his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) has raging teen angst, and things only get worse when his aunt and uncle arrive for the holidays with his butch cousins and sourpuss Great Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) in tow.
Max’s only confidante is Omi (Krista Stadler), his paternal grandmother from the old country, who insists on speaking in German while she bakes enough cookies to tempt a thousand Santas. When a terrible storm sets in after Max’s cousins harass him into tearing up his letter, only Omi seems to know what’s coming.
What’s coming is a sequence of increasingly dark and macabre encounters that, in their best moments, evoke memories of 1984’s “Gremlins.” But unlike that cult classic, “Krampus” can never quite find its stride, and lacks the Spielberg charm that might make it truly memorable.
It isn’t for a lack of trying. One by one, Max’s family members are beset by an assortment of minion-like creatures led by the Krampus, a kind of half-man, half-goat with a passion for jingle bells. When Omi finally reveals the history behind their tormentor, “Krampus” becomes one of the strangest pro-Christmas movies committed to film.
The PG-13 rating is perfect. “Krampus” is dark without really being frightening. It’s gruesome without being gory and campy without being corny. It’s way too intense for younger children, but there is very little here that would be considered offensive. “Krampus” will only suit a particular taste, but that taste will enjoy a few crazy treats.
Scott and Collette provide some familiar faces in the cast, but none of the characters here offer much more than two dimensions. Ferrell is probably the most effective as the token creepy foreign character, while David Koechner feels the most out of place as Max’s uber-macho Uncle Howard.
There’s a constant critique of our commercial Christmas culture lingering under the surface — the opening credits play over a slow-motion sequence set at a Black Friday sale — and it’s never more apparent than when the family is beset by a bunch of possessed toys in their attic. But “Krampus” never truly makes a definitive argument against our consumerism. There are some fun and creepy characters, including a child-gobbling clown snake and a team of disgruntled gingerbread men, but the promise of “Krampus” ultimately lands halfway between a lump of coal and that Red Ryder BB gun we were really hoping for.
Then again, depending on your expectations, a modest dose of “Krampus” crazy may be just enough, especially considering this year’s mediocre Christmas fare on the big screen. It definitely could have been better, but can we really gripe about a Christmas movie about a vengeful goat monster from the underworld?
"Krampus" is rated PG-13 for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material; running time: 98 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.