There’s a stop-motion interlude about 30 minutes into Krampus that constitutes the film’s only inspired touch, and only then for being so out of the blue. In it, Krista Stadler’s Omi relates the story of how, as a girl, her discontent with the Christmas season led to the summoning of the Krampus, a devil-like menace who, according to at least this film’s interpretation of the folktale, tears through streets and invades homes with his wee little minions in tow, searching for children to punish for their ostensible transgressions. The artisanal level of craftsmanship that went into this sequence impresses in the moment, even as one is disappointed with how St. Nick’s evil counterpart, so eerily arising from the realm of suggestion, is stripped of his connections with religious belief and of his role as a purveyor of moral judgment.
The film’s opening scene, of shoppers tearing through a store in slow motion as they try to get their grubby hands on seasonal deals, is initially promising for suggesting that the Krampus’s obligatory rampage will avenge rather than enforce the oppressive consumerism of the holidays. But as the shoppers continue to plow into one another, punching each other out while trampling store employees, it becomes clear that the scene exists only as a prelude to further mockeries to come. The ugliness of the shoppers is subsequently and contemptuously echoed in the rotund bodies and crass demeanors of the family members who tear into the home of Sarah (Toni Collette) and her husband, Tom (Adam Scott). Embarrassed at the dinner table by his tom-boyish cousins for his Christmas wishes, young Max (Emjay Anthony) tears up his letter to Santa and in so doing invites Krampus’s wrath.
Krampus suggests what it might be like to see a shrill and anonymously shot Christmas movie starring Hugh Grant or Sarah Jessica Parker invaded by the ghoulies from Stuart Gordon’s Dolls. That’s not an uninteresting proposition, except there’s a sense throughout that the filmmakers forgot to color in their premise. The Krampus’s arrival is signaled by an El Niño-like shock of bad weather, which causes the lights to go out across town. Everyone has strangely vanished except for the family at the center of the story, and after Max’s sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), disappears after going to seek out her boyfriend, the rest of her clan begin to fall like dominos. In one scene, cousin Howie (Maverick Flack) is literally fished out of the house through the chimney after biting on a gingerbread-man minion dangling from one of Krampus’s chains. The boy’s indiscretion? Having a sweet tooth.
The film’s impatient cutting never really allows the audience to take in the old-fashioned detail with which some of Krampus’s cronies have been rendered. Regardless, these scenes still feel discordant alongside others—painted in Alvin and the Chipmunks-style CGI brushstrokes—depicting the gingerbread men attacking Howard (David Koechner) in Sarah and Tom’s kitchen with a nail gun. This mess of discordant styles is matched by a message not so much mixed as it is craven, of Max being punished not for being bad, but for, to paraphrase one of Omi’s warnings, losing hope and letting the Christmas spirit die. At the center of the film, then, is a conservative lesson that asks us to unquestioningly abide by society’s capitalistic impulses, and it’s one delivered so nakedly, so absent of subversion, as to offend the judgmental Krampus of myth who’s far from the unimaginative sheep-herder depicted here.