Back in 2015, there was a little movie called Krampus. It was made and marketed as a horror film that sought to comment on the modern cynical corruption of Christmas, celebrating the holiday’s more pure-hearted meanings by inverting yuletide imagery to kill off self-centered materialistic dumbfucks. And it was brought to us by Michael Dougherty, who had previously brought us Trick ‘r Treat.
On paper, this should’ve worked. In practice, the movie turned out to be long on violent horror and short on Christmas cheer. It certainly didn’t help that our paragon of the Christmas spirit was a mute unknowable monster with no clear motive or rules for who got punished and how.
So here’s Violent Night, an action film that seeks to comment on the modern cynical corruption of Christmas, celebrating the holiday’s more pure-hearted meanings by inverting yuletide imagery to kill off self-centered materialistic dumbfucks. Except that this time, we’ve got a badass Saint Nick played by David Harbour, a screenplay from the writers of Sonic the Hedgehog and its sequel, the director of the Dead Snow movies, and the husband/wife producing team of Kelly McCormick and David Leitch representing Team John Wick.
Put it all together and what have we got? Well, let’s take a look.
Our premise begins with Gertrude “Trudy” Lightstone (Leah Brady), a sweet and precocious young girl with the misfortune of being born into a family of wealthy asshole war profiteers. Her estranged parents are Jason and Linda Lightstone (respectively played by Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder), who are on the outs with each other because Jason doesn’t have the spine to stand up to his boss/mother (Gertrude Lightstone, played by Beverly D’Angelo), so he’s working himself to the bone at the expense of his wife and daughter.
Elsewhere, we’ve got Jason’s sister (Alva, played by Edi Patterson), who’s made it her life’s mission to inherit the family company by any means necessary, especially if it means dragging her brother relentlessly and sucking up to her mom at every possible opportunity. Alva’s current boyfriend is Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet), a conceited action star who’s kissing Mama Gertrude’s ass so she’ll agree to finance his latest action movie vehicle. Last but not least is Alva’s son (Bertrude, more commonly known as “Bert”, played by Alexander Elliot), a self-absorbed social media influencer.
As much as the family hates each other, Gertrude has spared no expense in hiring a small army of caterers and entertainers to host a family get-together at her massive private estate on Christmas Eve. Alas, it turns out that Gertrude’s employees hate her at least as much as her own family does, because over a dozen of them have conspired to turn against the family and stage a hostile takeover to kill the family and steal $300 million from a secure vault on the premises. The operatives all go by Christmas-themed code-names, and their mastermind is John Leguizamo’s character, appropriately dubbed “Scrooge”.
And that’s when Santa comes down the chimney into all this mess.
To backtrack a bit, I should point out that David Harbour’s portrayal of Santa is a drunken jaded mess. He’s upset that Amazon is more or less making his own delivery service obsolete. He’s pissed off that everyone only wants cash, gift cards, or electronic media that’ll be obsolete next year. Most of all, Santa is thoroughly beaten down by the rapacious nature of kids in the era of late-stage capitalism. That spark of childlike wonder and joy only lasts until the presents are unwrapped, and the kids just keep on consuming from there in constant pursuit of the next high.
Oh, and that’s not even getting started on Mrs. Claus. Not that we ever see or hear from her, but Santa mentions in passing that they’ve been married for over 1,100 years by this point. Keeping a marriage going for that length of time is bound to take its toll on a guy, just saying.
(Side note: There’s already talk of a sequel involving Mrs. Claus, and the director reacted favorably to a suggestion that recurring collaborator Noomi Rapace could play the character. Bring it on, I say.)
Anyway, Santa comes down the chimney while the heist at Lightstone Manor is underway, and all the gunfire scares away the reindeer. Thus Santa is left stranded on this huge isolated private estate, made even more isolated after Scrooge and crew cut off all lines of communication. Because Santa’s got nothing better to do and Trudy’s on the Nice List, he sticks around long enough to fight off the invaders for the young girl’s protection (not to mention his own self-defense) and we’re off to the races.
To start with, the premise bears an obvious passing resemblance to Die Hard, which does indeed get name-checked. We also get numerous references to Home Alone, and we’ve got Beverly D’Angelo — late of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — in the cast. Not only are all three movies perennial holiday favorites, but they’re holiday favorites with an especially demented sense of humor. Even Home Alone lives and dies on a subversive kind of thrill, from Kevin McCallister’s power fantasy of watching and eating whatever he wants to the spectacle of over-the-top violence masquerading as “kid-friendly” entertainment. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, and invoking those old familiar classics strikes a fine balance, such that it’s just enough to prime the audience for more of the same.
Speaking of which, let’s get to the action. Obviously, the fight scenes are well up to the standard we’ve come to expect from an 87North production. The stunts are great, the pacing is good, the editing is solid, and we’ve got some deliciously inventive kills. A particular highlight is an extended sequence in tribute to Home Alone, which dares to portray McCallister-esque booby traps with the R-rated gore they always deserved.
On the surface, the notion of Santa Claus as an action movie protagonist sounds utterly ludicrous. Leaving aside the sacrilegious notion that the embodiment of childhood wonder and altruistic Christmas spirit would ever commit brutal cold-blooded murder (though that twisted premise is definitely part of the film’s appeal), there’s the fact that we’re dealing with freaking Santa Claus. He’s hundreds of years old, he’s capable of inconceivable magic, and he’s literally got a bag of tricks big enough to pull anything out of. He should be theoretically capable of winning — or at least avoiding — any kind of physical conflict, right?
Well, this portrayal of Santa does have some notable handicaps.
To start with, there’s the fact that he opens the film as a drunk and broken-down old wreck. His combat prowess does improve after he’s shaken off some rust, but it takes a while. Secondly, while Santa does have access to his trusty bag, it’s mostly full of DVDs and gift cards and other things that wouldn’t be much of any use in a fight. Most importantly — and this is a huge part of what’s made 87North so great at action cinema, going all the way back to the first John Wick — it’s clearly shown that Santa can be hurt. He bleeds, he feels pain, he gets tired, and it’s thus heavily implied that he can be killed.
All of that said, we’re still talking about Santa Claus here. He’s still got the strength and endurance to get so much work done all over the world in so little time. He’s still got the speed and stealth to sneak into and out of everyone’s houses undetected. He’s still got access to powerful magic… even if he doesn’t understand how it works. Seriously, “Christmas magic” is used multiple times as a hand-wave, and it’s outright stated that not even Santa Claus himself is entirely clear on how exactly he can do all the amazing things he does. That’s some pretty lazy writing, not gonna lie.
Anyway, Santa is old-fashioned enough that he barely knows what an assault rifle is, much less how to use one. Instead, his primary weapon is… a sledgehammer. I have mixed feelings about this.
Granted, David Harbour and the stunt team do a fantastic job delivering epic kills and fight scenes with the use of a sledgehammer. Perhaps more importantly, the filmmakers provide some vague backstory in which Santa started out as a medieval Viking, bashing in skulls with his hammer as he raped and pillaged long before he was ever the paragon of peace on earth and goodwill toward all. Thus Santa’s lethal use of a sledgehammer expresses the theme that bad things can be done for good reasons, which in turn makes for a sweetly satisfying redemption arc for Saint Nick.
On the other hand, Santa spends the first two-thirds of the movie MacGyvering holiday-themed items into lethal weapons. We’ve got icicle spears, razor-sharp ice skates, tinsel garrotes, candy canes sharpened into picks, and so on. Trouble is, such moments are all too brief and these methods are unreliable at best. Yes, it makes more logical sense that a sledgehammer would be a more effective weapon than Christmas lights, but who in the nine hells came to this fucking picture expecting logical sense? Sorry, but the hammer doesn’t play nearly as well into the premise of the film, and I wish the filmmakers had leaned even more heavily into the conceit of weaponizing Christmas imagery.
(Side note: It occurs to me that the aforementioned Krampus heavily featured weaponized dolls and wind-up toys, something sorely absent from Violent Night. That’s definitely a missed opportunity, so here’s hoping we get that for the sequel.)
With all of that said, there really is a beating heart to this picture. I won’t go into details about how Santa and Trudy are able to communicate by radio in this picture, but suffice to say it is at once exceedingly convoluted yet surprisingly solid. Anyway, Santa gives Trudy the hope and strength to make it through this horribly traumatic night while Trudy helps Santa to rediscover his courage and his raison d’etre.
What may be even better, there comes a time when we finally learn what Scrooge’s deal is. This is a guy who genuinely hates Christmas, for a legitimately valid reason stemming from late-stage capitalism that resulted in a horrible childhood trauma. In a way, Scrooge’s Christmas was ruined for the same reasons that made Santa so disillusioned with the holiday at the start of the film. There comes a point at the climax when Scrooge realizes that he’s got a very real chance at permanently ending Christmas, very much like Santa was talking about doing at the start of the film. In this way, Scrooge works remarkably well as a dark mirror for Santa, which further goes toward advancing Santa’s development arc.
While the film was made and marketed on the image of Santa maiming and killing an army of faceless goons, the filmmakers are sure to leave plenty of room for Santa Claus to be Santa Claus. When Santa’s talking with Trudy, he makes this little girl feel like she and her family and her heart’s greatest wishes really matter. When Santa is talking with Scrooge, he’s making a sincere effort at reaching out to this poor abused inner child, desperately and poignantly appealing to whatever better nature he might still have.
In summary, the film tries to juggle the merciless with the heartfelt, the humorous and the uplifting and the bloodthirsty, blending all these disparate elements together into a consistent character recognizable as the one and only genuine Saint Nick. This should be an impossible task. And I don’t know how the fuck David Harbour did it, but he’s probably the only man in all of history who could’ve possibly done it so well. It certainly helps that Leah Brady plays a fine scene partner, though she does often push the boundaries regarding how much twee is acceptable.
Pretty much everyone else in the cast is playing a hate sink. I was honestly disappointed that more members of the Lightstone family weren’t killed off in brutal fashion, but I suppose they were of greater thematic use in the climax. Of course John Leguizamo proved himself more than worthy of his position as the lead villain, playing a scumbag with charisma and pathos and humor like only he could.
In addition to the aforementioned Krampus, we’ve got Black Christmas, Silent Night Deadly Night, and a host of other movies based on the premise of twisting Christmas imagery into something dark and demented. Violent Night is almost certainly the best such movie we’re ever going to get. It’s astounding how well the movie delivered on those twisted visceral transgressive thrills while also crafting a film that’s genuinely uplifting and heartwarming in that yuletide way.
While the film does rely a little too much on flimsy hand-waving, this whole project was still a high-risk/high-reward maneuver that paid off beautifully. It certainly helps that David Harbour, John Leguizamo, and director Tommy Wirkola all had a crystal-clear vision of the movie they were trying to make, and the bastards were crazy enough to go for it full-tilt.
At this point, the movie is practically guaranteed to get its own fanbase, just like Die Hard and Home Alone before it. There will absolutely be millions of people committed to making this a new holiday tradition. I’m happy to be one of them and I can’t wait to see it again next year. You should definitely see it now, before Avatar: The Way of Water washes everything else out of multiplexes.