Deep into this subversive Christmas movie, there’s a moment where the aggressive Santa Claus sticks an active grenade down the pants of an attacking kill squad. Santa flees a few feet but then stops and says to himself “I gotta watch this.” He turns around and watches as the assassin explodes into a bloody and fiery mess on the Christmas Eve snow. He chuckles a “holy shit” as he marches off to kill some more. The whole film feels like this, taking the time to appreciate the grizzly and giddy sights of this Christmas carnage.
Violent Night is the type of film that has a clear path for the type of dark and absurd Christmas action movie it aims to be. It has the same playful nature as a holiday romp but with added bits of grit to both its violence and pointed humor. Of course, it helps that David Harbour steps effortlessly into the role of a haggard Santa Claus. Disillusioned by the consumerism of Christmas, this true Santa spends his Christmases stinking drunk during his deliveries for video games and cash. Christmas cheer is gone and replaced by booze, puke, and pissing over the side of the sleigh.
Santa’s stop in Connecticut leads him to a chaotic household. The decadent home of corporate leader and shrewish matriarch Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo) becomes a hotbed of money squabbles and terrorists. Her family visiting for the holidays includes the hapless Jason (Alex Hassell), his ex-wife Linda (Alexis Louder), their sweet daughter Trudy (Leah Brady), Jason’s egotistical sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her egotistical actor husband Morgan (Cam Gigandet), and their obnoxious influencer son. All of them are soon taken hostage by the money-seeking terrorist leader Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), as well as his henchmen all given Christmas-themed names.
The film proceeds down the Die Hard route a bruised and battered Santa saving the family. It leans heavily into the bloody brilliance of the Christmas theme where every kill has some holiday hilarity behind it. The terrorists get impaled on icicles, stabbed with Christmas tree stars, ground up by woodchippers, and a particularly clever death involving the chimney. Santa, bitter about the holidays already, takes a certain dark glee in massacring the bad guys, especially since the life of the innocent Trudy is on the line.
Despite how simplistic that premise sounds, it’s surprising how engaging the script becomes. There are enough depths to Santa that the pathos of his past life as a warrior and his longing for his wife becomes unique motivational factors. The Lightstone family Christmas is punctuated by a class divide, where the greediest of adults get what is coming to them with just the right amount of karma. The anti-consumerism vibe is much appreciated, even if it comes hammered home with an anticapitalist Santa and a climax that literally involves burning money.
There’s a wonderful subversion to Christmas movies in how the film places with subgenres. The soundtrack by Dominic Lewis feels like it would be perfectly suited for a Home Alone movie. Speaking of Home Alone, there’s a hilarious bit of gruesome comedy in how Trudy reenacts the movie on the terrorists trying to kill her. She finds it funny that her traps work, involving nails and bowling balls. The reality of this slapstick leads to moments where the terrorists are horrifically brutalized. Scenes like this are cute in their own little gory ways of playing with common Christmas conventions.
So much of the film works for its action, slapstick, and viciously scathing dialogue that it feels like the corny Christmas one-liners are earned. This leads to Scrooge’s “Christmas dies tonight” and Santa’s sinister “Santa Claus is coming to town” feeling much more like festive ornaments on this already glowing Christmas tree of a picture. I don’t even care that Scrooge’s dark variation of a Christmas song doesn’t work. It’s just ridiculous to work in a film where Santa spends a lot of time bludgeoning people with a sledgehammer.
Violent Night delivers what it promises as a bloody Christmas action movie and then some by going hard on the absurdity and vulgarity. While the whole concept of Christmas subversion movies has kinda grown hollow after years of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Bad Santa, I’m ecstatic to report that this film gets the job done right. If you’re going to have a Santa Claus Die Hard movie, you have gotta go hard on that concept and director Tommy Wirkola doesn’t disappoint in the least. Time will ultimately tell but I dare say this is sure to become a staple Christmas movie. Well, when the kids are in bed, of course.