Attempting to re-bottle the lightning that the once-shelved Trick ‘r Treat captured way back in 2008, Michael Dougherty’s Christmas horror comedy Krampus more or less nails the details that earned its Hallowtide brethren a home audience’s adoration, but fails in one important respect: Krampus doesn’t love Christmas the way Trick r’ Treat loves Halloween. Where the latter traces a thread of earnest solemnity through its intersecting vignettes and takes a demented glee in its punishment of the ignorant, Krampus satirizes the modern Christmas mindset in the same tiresome vein as countless other inferior Christmas Vacation imitators, looking for belly laughs from sitcom-level broad comedy while it goes about punishing the wrong people, audience included.
It kicks things off with a way over-the-top slow-mo sequence that zeroes in on Adam Scott and Toni Colette’s married couple as bit players in a department store madhouse breaking up a Nativity play brawl involving their son. Uproarious in its own right, it’s completely incongruous with all that follows, as Scott and Colette’s family, perfectly ordinary aside from its Cousin Eddie-ish offshoots, are sequestered to their home for the remainder of the movie, and not even the horrors that later descend upon them can match the disturbing spectacle of two grinning mall cops tazing shoppers in front of an enraptured crowd. Their son, Max (Emjay Anthony), is an ardent Santa believer just past the age statute of limitations when he finally gives up hope after being goaded into another humiliating fight by his visiting redneck cousin. He rips up his letter to Santa, and when he throws the shreds out the window, they take to the wind and bring on a blizzard that heralds the arrival of Krampus, the anti-Santa, and his minions, to make everyone pay for Max’s impiety.
Dougherty and co. flaunt their gift for toying with simple iconography, perverting Christmas symbols and traditions in good measure, but their ideas disappointingly end at the design stage, with the script finding nothing better to do with their teeth-gnashing marionettes than to literally throw them at the characters,and only once at that, in a standalone action sequence that strives for the claustrophobic terror of Sam’s home invasion in Trick ‘r Treat, but feels like nothing more than a contrived effort to put their craftsmanship on display. Save for a wicked little scene featuring what you’d call a game of chimney fishing, the action is largely unmotivated and pointless, and the horror neutered by a string of paltry zingers and lazy tension-building. The only thing saving it from the inclusion of a laugh track, and God help me for saying it, is David Koechner’s occasionally spot-on deadpan delivery, matching Randy Quaid’s brilliant idiocy in such moments as when he forgets his infant daughter out in the car.
Dougherty is still something special behind the camera, and given his track record of scriptwriting and his industry connections, it’s a shame that we don’t get to experience his directorial sensibilities more often. Krampus may misfire, but it’s still a unique and determined beast, lurking through Dougherty’s closed-set dreamscapes with a fairytale whimsy and burbling sense of possibility. Trick ‘r Treat 2 is still on deck, and its there that we have to pin our hopes that Dougherty can once again lighten horror without making it feel so thin.