Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, Allison Tolman, David Koechner, and Conchata Ferrell in KrampusKRAMPUS

What kind of sick bastard invented the jack-in-the-box? I mean, really: You turn a crank and hear an off-key rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel," and, the moment you're most lulled into its creaky sing-song, a freaking clown jumps out at you?! As children's toys go, this one's just the worst - and, in its scary/funny way, also kind of the best. The same could be said for the new horror comedy Krampus, which, in one memorable scene, employs a jack-in-the-box for maximum giggles and shrieks. It's a blunt and mostly clumsy piece of work, but also admirably creepy and sometimes very funny, and definitely one of the livelier yuletide-themed films of its type since Gremlins.

Director/co-writer Michael Dougherty's sick-joke trifle opens with Bing Crosby gently crooning "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" to slow-motion images of slapstick pandemonium: violently desperate customers waging war with harried salespeople, and each other, during a mega-store sale. It's an amusing sequence, if one with an overly blatant message about our collective loss of holiday spirit, and after landing on Krampus' narrative setup - with testy family members reuniting for three traditionally unhappy days together - you prepare for further obviousness. While preteen Max (Emjay Anthony) still believes in Santa Claus, and has a ready-to-be-mailed letter in his back pocket to prove it, no one else is feeling festive. Not Dad (Adam Scott), who fills his cocoa mug with Scotch, or Mom (Toni Collette), who pops Xanax in dread of her guests' arrivals. Not Max's sullen teen sister (Stefania LaVie Own) or beloved German grandma (Krista Stadler), the latter of whom bakes Christmas treats with suspiciously stoic discipline. Not Max's visiting aunt (Allison Tolman) or loutish uncle (David Koechner) or ceaselessly rude great-aunt (Conchata Ferrell). And certainly not Max's cretinous, mouth-breathing cousins (Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen, and Queenie Samuel), one of whom, during dinner, confiscates Max's letter and is merciless in her teasing. Max grabs the missive and, his belief in Christmas shattered, tears it to shreds and tosses it out the window. It turns out, however, that Santa isn't the only one for whom you'd better watch out ... .

Adam Scott in KrampusClearly this clan needs to learn The True Meaning of Christmas, and the lesson is subsequently taught not by St. Nicholas, but by the nightmarish folklore figure Krampus: a horned monstrosity hell-bent on punishing those who've lost their holiday cheer. At first, he sends a crippling blizzard that traps the family at Max's home without electricity or phone or Internet service. But then he sends his minions - among them burrowing worms out of Tremors, fanged clown dolls, and devilish gingerbread men - and Krampus, finally, really takes off. Barring one evocatively spooky scene of Krampus jumping from rooftop to rooftop and an unexpectedly beautiful animated re-telling of his origin, Dougherty's film is compositionally and visually blah. (Given the creepy, unnerving scampering oftentimes heard in the family attic, the movie sounds much better than it looks.) Yet his artless, in-your-face style proves perfectly appropriate for the movie's crude jolts and satisfyingly unsubtle punchlines. Dougherty's tone is clearly tongue-in-cheek throughout, never more so than when those ambulatory Christmas cookies get their sugary mitts on a nail gun, but the melees are also swift, brutal, and sometimes shockingly mean-spirited for a PG-13 release. While the only blood on-screen is from some scratches on Koechner's leg, the movie is still Gremlins with a healthy dash of Silent Night, Deadly Night.

It's also quite nicely acted, with Scott and Collette exuding particularly welcome emotional gravitas, and Ferrell, as was her stock-in-trade on Two & a Half Men, selling lame wisecracks through sheer force of personality. And just when you think the movie is going to crap out and climax with some awkwardly tacked-on sentiment, Dougherty and company have one last trick up their sleeves: a haunting, queasy kicker that makes Krampus the rare modern horror film that doesn't, at the end, feel like a cheat. It turns out that when this cinematic jack-in-the-box pops open, it isn't a clown inside. It's Rod Serling.


Juliet Stevenson in The LettersTHE LETTERS

Writer/director William Riead's The Letters is a bio-pic that follows Mother Teresa (Juliet Stevenson) through her early years - roughly 1946 through 1954 - attending to the sick and impoverished in Calcutta and eventually establishing her Missionaries of Charity congregation. And while it clearly has the noblest of intentions, I have to ask: Aren't I, by dint of being a movie reviewer, already in danger of going to Hell without stating that Riead's film is a dull, unconvincing, horribly executed waste of talent and time? The talent is that of the usually radiant Stevenson, hunched and one-dimensionally pious here, and the great Max von Sydow, whose sole purpose is to deliver wretchedly written exposition to a priest played by Rutger Hauer. (Yes. Rutger Hauer. That's not a typo.) The time, sadly, is all of ours, from the on-screen Indian extras who can't stop staring directly into the camera to the poor patrons who certainly must have expected a more enlightening, inspiring experience than two hours of deadening "tell, don't show" filmmaking. Plodding, graceless, resolutely cheap-looking, and in no way worthy of its inarguably fascinating subject, The Letters is a movie only a mother could love. Even this film's Mother, however, might've found that a challenge.

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