Michael Dougherty
Stars: Adam Scott, Toni Collette
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Tyler Perry gets chastised for mixing extreme tones — broad, cross-dressing-happy comedy one scene, po-faced soap opera the next. But he has nothing on the Christmas horror/sorta-comedy “Krampus.” It opens with a “Bad Santa”-style slow-mo presentation of violent holiday shopping set to a peppy X-mas tune, then slides into a an imitation “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” complete with a wan take on Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie (played by David Koechner). Soon it turns into a freaky, beautifully filmed and rather grim dark horror. Every now and then it wants to be a more comedic “Gremlins,” but those scenes seem spliced in from another movie (maybe an actual “Gremlins” knockoff).

It could and should have been simple. Its monster is the Krampus of Alpine folklore, essentially the, well, bad Santa: a horned, animalistic creature who punishes the misbehaving kids Kris Kringle snubs. Instead it’s been reconfigured as an agent of vengeance, called upon by children who want to rid themselves of family members, but apparently only by accident. It’s not very well-explained. Either way, a sad suburban boy with a bowtie inadvertently summons its wrath, after he’s angered by the arrival of his mean redneck cousins for the big Christmas hoedown. At first the family goes into home invasion mode, thinking they can keep the Krampus and its minions at bay with their relatives’ handy arsenal. Eventually it seems to be heading for something closer to bleak-o-rama.

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A cottage industry has long existed of Yuletide cinema that finds the seedy underbelly in a time of enforced and commercialized good cheer. At times “Krampus” goes farther into the abyss than any of them. Teenagers and children aren’t off-limits to whatever the Krampus does with them, and ditto the loving parents, played by Adam Scott and a typically excellent and well overqualified Toni Collette. (She invests a rote and instantly abandoned segue into her and her husband’s marital woes with as much depth of feeling as she brought to the underseen cancer dramedy “Miss You Already.”)

The suspense scenes — shot in darkened houses or on blizzard-caked suburban streets — are moody and genuinely eerie, thanks to cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin, who usually shoots horror films, thrillers and James Cameron aquatic documentaries. The creatures aren’t CGI but lovingly made contraptions, usually boasting gorgeously eerie masks. They’re the stuff of nightmares, and they don’t gibe with jokes about alcoholic aunts spiking hot chocolate or Red State types making global warming gaffes. Nor do they cut well with a siege of sentient, nail gun-wielding gingerbread men out of “Shrek.” 

That might have worked in a fun movie, but not in a film that’s genuinely sinister, and certainly not in one that worldbuilds this sloppy. The first sighting of the Krampus, in a clear view from afar, recalls the entrance of the beastie in “The Host,” but the extent of its powers — including its legions of evil elves and dolls — is parceled out as though on random. The Krampus still doesn’t make the sense even after a spooky, stop-motion explanation, which announces it emerges when “people forget the true meaning of Christmas.” This, in a film with a joke cameo by cable commentators talking about the War on Christmas. It’s not clear who it thinks its audience is. The filmmakers seem to think it’s everyone, but it’s really no one.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge