Review by C.J. Bunce
Christmas ends tonight. That could only be a slogan for a bad, low-budget slasher horror movie, and there are lots of holiday movies out there. Thousands. Most are obvious, focused on Halloween, but pretty much all holidays, including Valentine’s Day and Christmas, have had their horror efforts. The best of these have something lasting that calls for re-watching, like Gremlins and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Is Violent Night in a league with these? Nope. But at times it fights for that status, tapping into all kinds of non-traditional Christmas movies on its way, everything from Home Alone to Die Hard, maybe Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But it’s definitely gross-out slasher horror, with full 1980s violence and profanity, and it samples elements from horror genre favorites Final Destination and Ready or Not. Horror is traditionally one of the big focuses of February for Hollywood, so a new horror movie streaming a week before Valentine’s Day is well-timed. Is Violent Night for you? Let’s find out.
First off, the audience for this isn’t kids of any age. Despite the best scenes of the movie being the borderline heartwarming interactions between 10-year-old star Leah Brady’s Trudy having innocent chats over walkie-talkies with Stranger Things star David Harbour as the real Santa Claus, a near-full run through of Carlin’s seven dirty words will make this a no-go for most families. It’s not an art house film or drama. It’s a horror flick with a moderate budget and a single popular actor at its center. At a minimum the references are targeted to those who grew up with Home Alone, Die Hard, Scrooged, and My Bloody Valentine, probably people born in the early 1980s or before (many grandparents now), otherwise some of the humor will be lost. And you can’t be put off by bloody violence, like head-shots, stabs, slices, hacks, and in-your-face methods with several holiday-themed ad hoc weapons (fireplace implements, an over-sized nutcracker, Christmas lights, and an icicle, just for starters).
The set up begins with Santa at a pub, having a particularly bad Christmas Eve for some reason we never discover, although it’s likely the general vibe that nobody believes in Santa anymore and nobody has any Christmas spirit, especially greedy little kids. Although the best bad Santa on the screen remains the Krampus episode of Grimm, Violent Night is next in line if you ignore a clunky plot and dialogue and only focus on Harbour’s performance. Although the best Santa Claus will always be Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, Santa has seen several good likenesses, including the Haddon Sundblom paintings used in 20th century Coca-Cola advertising. David Harbour’s Santa, especially in the first part of the film (before getting beat-up and battered around) and then later in the film when he sports a man-bun, is a perfectly devised likeness, and most will find him believable as the real deal. Harbour even beats Ed Asner’s grumpy Santa from Elf, only because Harbour can’t help turning his grim into happy Santa when confronted with little Trudy.
The plot mirrors the wealthy family in Ready or Not. This family is headed by matriarch Gertrude, played by Beverly D’Angelo, an intelligent but irreverent businesswomen in a mansion of worthless adult children. No one in the family is likeable, making this somewhat like the ensembles in both Knives Out and its sequel, so scenes with them alone are always too long. So when John Leguizamo (who we just saw in The Menu) enters the scene as the head of a mob attempting to steal the family wealth from an onsite safe in a panic room, the audience won’t care who lives or dies–except Trudy and Trudy’s mom (Watchmen’s Alexis Louder), who is separated from Trudy’s dad (Cowboy Bebop’s Alex Hassell), who have reconciled for Christmas only.
In Scrooged the movie included a trailer for a mock movie called The Day the Reindeer Died, starring Lee Majors as a hero who saves Santa. This is the realization of that trailer, only with Harbour as Santa, and it’s Santa who must save the day. He must do so as Die Hard’s John McClane, complete with that walkie-talkie lifeline to the only other friendly in the film, and eliminating the bad guys by improvising weapons from what’s available, on Christmas Eve. He has help, as little Trudy just watched Home Alone for the first time, and she has better plans than Macaulay Culkin ever did, and it’s not cutesy, silly, family movie stuff. Leguizamo gets a Gremlins-inspired monologue at one point, and Harbour’s Santa gets some callbacks to Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas. His transport in and out of homes is as good as has been done on the big screen before, and his reindeer look great, too, even if they aren’t all that brave.
Good elements include a team of bad guys like those in Reservoir Dogs or Point Break, only their names are on theme, including Krampus, Candy Cane, Frosty, Tinsel, Sugarplum, and Peppermint. Of these, Arrow’s Brendan Fletcher stands out as Krampus (an elf) and Altered Carbon’s Mitra Suri makes a good badass as Candy Cane. The writers never find the right balance between drama, humor, and horror, and it often can be caught trying too hard, taking itself too seriously while alternately having the odd moment when you think a few more revisions could have made it a better movie.
The violence isn’t brilliantly staged or choreographed, but it’s as good or better than your favorite Chuck Norris movie. There’s something satisfying about Santa dishing out some justice, conjuring the warrior from the medieval past of this construct of the character. Harbour goes full Thor mode with his own giant hammer called Skullcrusher at one point. It’s a surprise angle, but that ice skate gets used imaginatively, and no matter what damage you thought a licked-to-sharpened candy cane can do, it may not measure up to Santa using it to save the day.
“Christmas ends tonight” is the theme of the movie, and a better title would have echoed its horror cousin Halloween Ends, as Last Christmas, or something similar, but at least the “violent” in the title hides nothing.
It probably wasn’t a great bet for Christmas viewing anyway. So if you like David Harbour, violence, and are up for an irreverent Christmas movie, watch Violent Night, streaming on the basic Peacock channel now.