“Krampus” wants to be both a comedy and a horror movie, but it can’t quite pull off either. There isn’t much in the way of sustained dread; the movie mostly relies on a few jump scares and a couple exciting monster-fighting scenes. Laughs naturally arise from the ridiculousness of the animated toy enemies, but outside of those sequences, the movie is lacking in comedy.
The film starts as a heartwarming family movie. Max (Emjay Anthony, “Chef”), a young boy who misses the way Christmas used to be, runs into trouble when his cruel cousins Stevie (newcomer Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel, “Nothing Trivial”) read his letter to Santa Claus out loud. The letter expresses Max’s wish that his parents, Tom (Adam Scott, “The Overnight”) and Sarah (Toni Collette, “United States of Tara”), would love each other again. Furious and disenchanted, Max tears apart the letter, triggering a massive supernatural snowstorm focused on their neighborhood.
In the early goings, “Krampus” relies on its compelling cast to entertain. Scott is always great as the straight man, and Anthony is a likable child actor, but other characters fall into stereotypical roles. Sarah is the naggy, passive-aggressive wife, rolling her eyes at her sister Linda (Allison Tolman, “Fargo”), brother-in-law Howard (David Koechner, “Another Period”) and aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell, “Two and a Half Men”). Howard resembles the same obnoxious-but-funny character Koechner always plays, like Todd Packer in “The Office,” and Dorothy, the sassy old grandma, gulps down peppermint schnapps. Sarah’s relationship with Linda is sweet in the few scenes when they interact, but it is never developed.
The main problem is that, like 2015’s earlier horror movie “The Visit,” “Krampus” takes way too long to get going. Nothing supernatural happens for quite a while, so there’s a sense that we’re all delaying the inevitable with this bland holiday dinner. Eventually, the power goes out and Max’s sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen, “The Carrie Diaries”) goes missing in the snowstorm, finally introducing some horror. Still, the movie continues to wait to play its cards, showing us boring, slightly comedic scenes of waiting and coping with the power outage, instead of the exciting horror it seems to foreshadow.
Visually, at least, the film is strong. Writer and director Michael Dougherty (“Trick ‘r Treat”) includes a beautiful stop-motion scene as Tom’s German mother Omi (Krista Stadler, “Lena Rais”) tells the story of Krampus, the ancient demon who killed Omi’s own parents after she lost her love of Christmas. The effects, too, are great, perfect for the campy horror vibe Dougherty wants to create. As the action scenes finally begin, the family fights off animated gingerbread men and murderous jack-in-the-boxes. None of it is particularly scary, but it’s funny, at least, and fun. Krampus himself, too, is appropriately disturbing, partly because his toy minions take up most of the action and leave him a threatening hidden entity.
Still, by the time things do start happening, the emotional investment is low because the movie has lagged to the point of indifference. “Krampus” entertains whenever it releases the monsters and lets chaos take over, but it remains restrained throughout most of its run time, even down to the ambiguous ending. When it comes to the horror-comedy genre, it’s essential not to hold anything back.