American kids have it easy at Christmas. If they've been naughty all year, Santa just puts a lump of coal in their stockings. In Austria and its Alpine environs, things are different. There, a fearsome creature called the Krampus—Santa's evil advance man—pays visits to bad little boys and girls and beats and maims them and carries them off to Krampus headquarters, presumably in a suburb of Hell.
Director Michael Dougherty has appropriated this gruesome folktale, stirred in glops of American seasonal nonsense and quite a bit of technical confusion, and come up with Krampus, a movie that inflicts its own kind of punishment. The picture has none of the eerie charm of dark fantasy, and it's difficult to imagine any children over the age of, say, 10 being scared by it. (The resentment of grownups talked into accompanying them to see it is easier to envision.)
The movie has far too many characters, both human and otherwise. In addition to the Christmas-loving central family—Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette) and their kids Max (Emjay Anthony) and Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen)—we also get cynical visiting relatives Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Allison Tolman) and their three appalling children, plus drunken Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell) and Tom's sweet, cookie-baking Old World mom, Omi (Krista Stadler), who's German and thus knows a thing or two about the Krampus. As for the titular entity himself, he's no longer a lone operative: here he's been outfitted with an army of sub-demon assistants that includes vicious toy bears and nailgun-wielding gingerbread men (very Gremlins). It's hard to keep track of all these characters, and even harder to care about most of them.
Little Max still believes in Santa, and has been composing a letter to send him. When his snotty cousins razz him about this, Max tears the letter up. Immediately, dark clouds fill the sky above and a blizzard moves in. Max's sister Beth nevertheless finds a reason to wander outdoors, and is soon being stalked by a towering creature of whom we see only cloven hoofs and dangling chains. Before long, Beth's dad and uncle venture out into the storm to find her, with similarly predictable results. Back at the house, with the blizzard raging outside and bad dialogue flying around within, Sarah hears a noise on the roof. "Probably just squirrels," she says. "Probably playin' with their nuts," says the irrepressible Aunt Dorothy.
Director Dougherty, whose last feature, Trick 'r Treat, was warmly received by horror fans, makes a number of unfortunate choices in dealing with this story. His over-fondness for tight facial close-ups suggests that he's using them to finesse editing problems. His chaotic staging of the action scenes—monster attacks, mainly—renders them largely incoherent. And his decision to use Pixar-style animation to illustrate Omi's tale of a childhood encounter with the Krampus, which is set amid the ruins of post-war Germany, shifts us into what feels like a different movie. One we might rather be watching.