After tantalizing us with his unique blend of humor and horror in the cult-favorite 2007 anthology "Trick 'r Treat," filmmaker Michael Dougherty has finally returned with "Krampus." Playing like a frothy, messed-up mix of "Christmas Vacation" and "Gremlins," this holiday horror show is wickedly funny, deliciously scary, and totally worth the wait.
Our story begins in an upper middle-class suburb, where a family is brewing for a horrible holiday: As mom fastidiously decorates the house, grandma bakes cookies, father fields business calls and sister Skypes with her boyfriend next door, young Max ("Chef's" Emjay Anthony) is putting the finishing touches on his letter to Santa. But after a disastrous dinner where his belief in Santa is openly mocked by his bullying cousins, the brokenhearted boy chucks the shredded letter to the winds, inadvertently calling down a grave holiday reckoning upon the household.
Like "Trick 'r Treat," "Krampus" focuses on the rules of its holiday. Respect must be paid to tradition, and when it's not, hell hath no fury like a bag of sharp-toothed toys. That's because Krampus doesn't come alone; he has his own army of malicious minions, each a hellish reject from Santa's winter wonderland. And they show no mercy.
Rated PG-13, the film is light on gore, with little blood to be seen. But the terror and tension still run high, as Dougherty is a master of this genre. He knows how to tease a scare, spool out suspense and deliver a ghoulish reveal with relish. Again and again, I squealed and jumped and laughed at outrageous creatures and inventive violence that confront this fractured family. Sinister snowmen, treacherous toys and crazed cookies are just the beginning. With each set piece, Dougherty offers a bigger baddie, building to his Krampus-centered finale. And it's fantastic. Fans of "Gremlins" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" will cheer for "Krampus," with its playful yet sinister take on the holiday season. But the horror is only one-half of what makes this movie great. The other is a cast that deftly handles each comedy beat.
Playing sisters, Toni Collette and "Fargo's" Allison Tolman bring a relatable thread of sibling rivalry to the film, fueled by differences in food preparation, parenting and their handling of caustic Aunt Dorothy (a scathingly funny Conchata Ferrell). Meanwhile, Adam Scott tries to play patient host -- with a bit of help from a hidden bottle of scotch -- while David Koechner does an earnest homage to Randy Quaid with his gun-loving, Hummer-driving redneck uncle Howard. These four forge the "Christmas Vacation" vibe that feeds so brilliantly into the horror story to come. Imagine if Clark Griswold and Uncle Eddie had to team up to reclaim their kids from the dark minions of this Anti-Santa and you'll have some idea of the mischief and mayhem "Krampus" presents.
The kids are no slouches, either. Just as he was in Jon Favreau's heralded indie "Chef," Johnson is the beating heart of this story. We ache for him when he rips up the letter, and we root for him as he does his damnedest to undo its damage. Giving a gender-bent twist to the typical holiday-bully role (think Buzz in "Home Alone" or Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story") are Lolo Owen and Queenie Samuel, while little brother Maverick Flack lands laughs with a series of blank stares (think "Bad Santa"). Then as counterpoint to all this silliness, you have Omi (Krista Stadler), the German grandma who's had a brush with this beast of lore before, and so delivers a pivotal and deeply creepy monologue.
Much like "The Visit," I recommend "Krampus" for frightening family fun, but this time, with no reservations. This is a family movie in the vein of 1980s Amblin, hoping to scare you as it inspires you to be kinder to those that love you, even when they fail to do so perfectly. Yes, it's holiday horror focusing on a family meant to repent for their sins against the Christmas spirit and each other, but there's no cynicism here.
Dougherty's film demands we sincerely celebrate Christmas, just as "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," "Elf" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas" before it, and becomes a uniquely entertaining, instant holiday classic in its own right.
"Krampus" opens Friday nationwide.