Director Michael Dougherty's first film, Trick 'r Treat, is both a great Halloween movie and a great horror film, which sounds like a trivially easy task to accomplish. If any holiday is well-suited to a genre, it's Halloween and horror; and yet what else has ever done it? Even the mighty Halloween isn't quite as perfectly balanced, largely because of the fruitless effort it puts into trying to pretend that California in the spring resembles Illinois in the autumn to any significant degree. But let's not push the matter: making a great horror film that draws brilliantly upon the iconography of Halloween is not entirely an unimaginable feat.

Ah, but now we finally come to Dougherty's second film, Krampus, a wearying eight years after the first. This time around, he's taking a crack at making a great horror film that's also a great Christmas movie, which is surely trickier - we know from Black Christmas that an all-time great horror movie can be set at Christmas, and we know from The Nightmare Before Christmas that Yuletide and horror imagery can be mixed together to the great sustained profit of both, and there are other examples of both halves of the horror/Christmas equation - but hardly any example of films doing both at the same time. Yet here we are again, and Dougherty's gone right ahead and performed his second miracle: he's made a film that is stylistically and thematically a top-notch Christmas movie, or at least a top-notch satire of them, which in these cynical days is the same thing; and he's made a movie that's about as foreboding and creepy as a PG-13 horror picture has any chance to be (it is like Trick 'r Treat in that it's heavier on spooky atmosphere than actual scares); and lo! they are the same movie.

As for who those characters are, they're the latest in a long line of movie families who hate each other barely pretending not to for the sake of the holidays. In a very nice upper-middle class suburban home tastefully decorated to an inch of its life, we find the Engels: Sarah (Toni Collette) and Tom (Adam Scott), and their teenage daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Own), and preteen son Max (Emjay Anthony), as well as Tom's mother Omi (Krista Stadler), an Austrian immigrant who persistently speaks German and is certainly the member of the family who's the most forgiving of Max's weird and embarrassing insistence on hewing to every last Christmas tradition, and who still believes in Santa Claus long after the age where it's cute. They're visited by Sarah's sister Linda (Allison Tolman), with her husband Howard (David Koechner), and their own brood: girls Stevie (Lolo Owen) and Jordan (Queenie Samuel), son Howie Jr. (Maverick Flanck), and their infant daughter Chrissy, as well as Sarah and Linda's alcholic aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). That's a lot of people and a lot of bad blood, what with Sarah's passive-aggressive sniping about Linda's alarming tackiness, the seething culture war brewing between smug liberal Tom and gun-nut Howard, and Max's official status as the pathetic nerdy punching bag for just about everybody.

The script, by Dougherty, Todd Casey, and Zach Shields, traffics in fairly broad stereotypes, especially in its depiction of Howard, but some weird X-factor enters in that stops the characters from feeling cartoonish. Perhaps it comes at the level of the actors: Krampus is blessed by a weirdly accomplished and dedicated cast for a low-budget horror-fantasy-comedy. There's the obvious matter of the criminally under-used Collette getting her first role of decent size, importance, and complexity in a wide-release movie in years, and running with it as far as she can: on paper, I don't know that there's anything that keeps Sarah from being superficial, image-obsessed, and classist, but Collette successfully argues for her character's actual feelings of pride and hurt, letting frustration and disappointment creep into her eyes and mouth in a whole bunch of tiny moments. It is such a great work of humanising a stock type that she pulls up other actors along with her: Scott in particular gets to cheat his way into the same shading of a fairly straightforward character as a reasonably level-headed person, just by virtue of sharing the Collette umbrella. Koechner and Tolman are far more willing to play the characters as comic types - this is, at any rate, exactly the kind of loud bully role that Koechner has largely built his career atop, and he doesn't challenge himself with it - but between their performances and the more leading lines in the script, there's a clear level of unspoken resentment at the kind of chilly rich people who think of having middle-class tastes as being inherently virtuous, and that makes their characters more interesting than the usual conservative morons stereotype, even if I can't imagine most viewers walking out of Krampus thinking we were meant to like Linda and Howard more than Sarah and Tom.

The film's snarky depiction of a corrosive family dynamic during the holidays - which extends down to the children, especially Max, the film's main character and the driver of both its plot and its themes - is crisp enough that I will confess to having forgotten that I was even there for a horror film, and was thoroughly admiring it just on the level of character dynamics. But a horror film it is, and a horror film it becomes the second that Max decides that Christmas sucks and isn't worth the effort, which triggers a supernatural snowstorm and the arrival of a great nasty Something that roars in the gloom. As we'll find through the vehicle of a stop-motion animated sequence in the fashion of the old Rankin/Bass holiday specials, this turns out to be Krampus, a legendary being from out of Austrian lore: the horned, goatlike demon who punishes those who have abandoned the spirit of Christmas. Apparently, Max was the very last innocent soul still holding true to the meaning of the season in all the town, and the moment he gave up, Krampus and his little helpers came along to steal all of the iniquitous away to his underworld of despair. This leads the family to band together to secure their homestead against the crush of a bitter snowy hell outside, and monstrous perversions of Christmas iconography inside.

The idea of the usual "dysfunctional family learns to count on each other" boilerplate being communicated through the matrix of a slasher movie (and structurally, that's exactly what Krampus is) is already weird enough to be delightful; that it actually ends up being a good dysfunctional family movie is just a happy bonus. Anthony's dogged performance of Max's anxieties gives the movie a sturdy arc on which to hang everything else, and though the film is too sardonic for it be really heartfelt - there's much sick humor and an utterly sanguine willingness to kill off kids, a pair of traits Dougherty also demonstrated to fine effect in Trick 'r Treat - the way the film subscribes to stock holiday movie tropes while also making them feel real is massively impressive. That it does so with a movie that's at least half about pushing back against a killer goat monster is jaw-dropping.

While the PG-13 rating hampers it from being as committed a horror movie as it is a Christmas fable, Krampus is generously supplied with some genuinely excellent scary movie ingredients. The design of the (mostly practical) monster effects is excellent, with a horribly fleshy, toothy Jack-in-the-Box creature that's as hard as the film could dare, while all the way on the other side, a population of killer gingerbread men are an enchanting mixture of the creepy and the ludicrous. Krampus himself is a great movie monster, a hulking silhouette for most of his screentime, with probing inhuman eyes in close-up. Beyond the obvious aspects of these various creatures, Dougherty's directing and Jules O'Loughlin's cinematography are great at building mood: the inscrutable veil of the snowstorm provides a sense of claustrophobic isolation while also cutting down on the light levels, and providing for a richly-designed soundtrack, full of the flat, over-loud sounds that carry in that kind of foggy weather. It is rarely a truly frightening movie, but it is often unsettling: the presence of inexplicably threatening snowmen, the thumps and howls of something close but unseen through the snow.

It's not obviously an instant classic like Trick 'r Treat, but at the very least, the narrow population of people who sincerely like the holidays but also enjoy making fun of them, and responds well to movie monsters has a new piece of essential seasonal viewing. The only other film I can think of that triangulates between horror, the holidays, and dark comedy this well is the '80s classic Gremlins, and I might even go so far into apostasy as to call Krampus the better movie; at any rate, it has more convincing characters and more insightful family drama. Given its pridefully weird, alienating goals, and the inherently small viewership who would ever want to see those goals executed, this is basically a perfect movie, and it pleases me to be squarely in the middle of that same small viewership.