From Jurassic World to Minions to Straight Outta Compton, Universal Pictures has been very nice this year, and it looks like the studio just found a small franchise in its stocking.
Krampus follows an unhappy extended family celebrating Christmas together. The main character, a young boy named Max (Emjay Anthony), is the only one who enters the film with his holiday spirit intact, though it is tested by his older sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), coming into herself and spending time with boys instead of him and his extended family’s financial troubles and general stupidity. After being mocked by his cousins for still believing the holidays could bring them together, Max tears up his letter to Santa and scatters it to the wind, cursing the holiday spirit and summoning the ancient Christmas demon, Krampus.
The core visual concepts in Krampus are fantastic. Visually, this is a movie about consumerism coming back to bite a family — literally — and ironically timed holiday music haunting and taunting them as their children are taken away. A jack-in-the-box unwraps itself and becomes a monsterous, slithering clown with jagged fangs. A teddy bear swells into a giant and develops similar mandibles. Ginger bread men bombard the people who baked them. There’s even a workshop of corrupted elves at one point. The piece de resistance, though, is the opening credits, an extended slow motion sequence of Black Friday chaos and savagery set to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Unfortunately, this is not the majority of the movie, and all related ideas could have been stuffed into a short. Most of the movie is just kind of normal. After its fantastic establishing scenes, it wanes to a by-the-numbers, pick-em-off bottle horror movie that gets bogged down in the mythology behind its main villain.
The movie even gets less ambitious in its camerawork. Where writer/director/producer Evan Dougherty didn’t shy away from tracking shots and other technical tricks before Krampus shows up, the cinematography gets decidedly less complex in the scenes when it would have really shined.
Krampus doesn’t really have an identity. Its high-brow aspects are too few for it to stand on alone, but its low-brow aspects are almost non-existent. This is a movie that really needed some splatter gore and some more gaudy desecration of religious and holiday iconography. There’s a lot of people getting sucked off screen or under the snow, but nobody gets killed onscreen. The consistent style makes it obvious that they’re not really dead and undercuts the entire movie. While we get to see a gingerbread man pinned to a refrigerator with a chef’s knife and a Christmas tree set ablaze, it doesn’t go far enough. This movie calls for profaned nativity scenes and defiled reindeer corpses, and it doesn’t deliver. This movie should have been a hard R, but is instead a soft PG-13.
This is a B movie, and B movies only work these days when they embrace that status. Krampus doesn’t.
The movie surprised at the box office last weekend with a $16.3 million second place finish, somewhere between double and triple its expected performance depending on who’s projections you go by. This could be due to a couple of things — for one, the Krampus as a mythological figure has been gaining popularity since the late ’90s, and has really started to spike the past few years. For another, the film exposed a pretty wide hole in the year’s movie lineup. The number one movie, part two of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, has been out for three weeks, and it and the other two movies expected to earn more than Krampus, The Good Dinosaur and Creed, just had an entire Thanksgiving weekend to dilute all their demand. Krampus exploited the weak lineup.
For both these reasons, expect several early December sequels over the next few years.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. The key is to be absolutely as aggressive as possible. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.