By Thomas M. Puhr.
The setup is little more than window dressing for a number of set pieces (some clever, others tedious) in which our hero kicks major ass, John McClane-style.”
After about 1,000 years, even the most glamorous job loses some of its luster. Such is the experience of Santa Claus (David Harbour), first seen drunkenly complaining in an English pub. Kids these days are too consumeristic, he opines; that gleam in the eye doesn’t last long after the last Christmas gift is torn open. Viewers may be reminded of Billy Bob Thornton’s introduction in Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003), but this disillusioned Santa is no shopping mall actor. He’s the real deal, as a bartender discovers when she follows him to the roof and witnesses his sleigh taking off. She gazes with childlike wonder, only to be puked on by Jolly Old St. Nick as he passes overhead.
This opening scene – which manages to be simultaneously sentimental, cynical, and repulsive – is a pretty good litmus test for whether or not you’ll get a kick out of Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night (2022). The film is in good company, as the “killer Santa” horror-thriller subgenre has its share of notable entries, from Christmas Evil (1980) to Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). While he never reaches the heights of these ’80s predecessors (or of his own breakout hit, 2009’s Dead Snow), the director ultimately delivers a perfectly enjoyable – if inconsistent – genre treat. For those who would rather watch Father Christmas bludgeon a bad guy with a sledgehammer than sit through the latest Hallmark schmaltz-fest, Violent Night should more or less hit the spot.
The main plotline concerns estranged couple Jason (Alex Hassell) and Linda (Alexis Louder) visiting the former’s filthy rich family with their young daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady), in tow. Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller quickly introduce us to each member of Jason’s dysfunctional, debauched family: the whiny sister, Alva (Edi Patterson); her wannabe Insta-famous nephew, Bert (Alexander Elliot); conceited movie star, Morgan (Cam Gigandet); and ruthless matriarch, Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo, who almost steals the show from Harbour). When a band of thieves led by the enigmatic “Scrooge” (John Leguizamo) breaks into the mansion in search of a 300 million dollar nest egg, it’s up to Santa – who happens to be delivering the family’s presents at the time – to step in and save the day.
Of course, the above setup is little more than window dressing for a number of set pieces (some clever, others tedious) in which our hero kicks major ass, John McClane-style. Violent Night is definitely one of those “spot the reference” movies. Santa’s communication with Trudy via walkie-talkie calls the McClane-Sgt. Powell friendship of Die Hard (1988) to mind, as do his ironic wisecracks and Scrooge’s Hans Gruber-like theatrics. And the booby traps Trudy arranges for the unsuspecting, bumbling thieves may make some people wish they were instead watching Home Alone (1990)for the hundredth time. None of these allusions are subtle, which is to be expected, though the characters’ ongoing acknowledgment of these references (Trudy notes how their situation is “just like Home Alone!” on more than one occasion) becomes grating.
But why be such a grouch when there is so much fun to be had? Key to the film’s modest success is Harbour’s performance; he goes all in, playing the big man without a trace of irony and even – dare I say it? – with real pathos. And while the expository scenes (and requisite “tell me where the money is, or I’ll shoot X character” confrontations) are a bit tedious, Wirkola is clearly having a blast once he gets to let loose and do what he does best: off people in elaborate, gruesome, and darkly funny fashion. A particularly inventive fight between Santa and one of many henchmen has the former frantically pulling gifts out of his bottomless bag in search of a weapon. Tossing aside useless packages (including – wink wink, nudge nudge – a Die Hard Blu-ray), he wonders aloud why none of these people could’ve asked for a sword. Gorehounds may be disappointed by the overreliance on CGI blood, but the director throws in gooey practical effects when it counts most – most notably during Santa’s final showdown with Scrooge, which ends with a delightfully twisted visual gag.
Violent Night knows what it is, and what its target viewer wants. Badass Santa: check. Bloody set pieces: check. Broad humor and Christmas puns: check. Though I occasionally got the impression that I wasn’t having as much fun as Wirkola and company hoped I would (at a reasonable 101 minutes, the film still feels bloated), I left the theater satisfied. It didn’t hurt that I saw it with a close friend after a beer or two. It’s all about set and setting, and perhaps this is Violent Night’s ideal viewing experience: late at night with those you love…and possibly with a little help from your substance of choice.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.