Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, Santa was kicking the living shit out of a bunch of home invaders in increasingly grisly and entertaining ways. And it was brilliant.
Adding to the Christmas canon, whether in songs or movies, is difficult. It’s all been done, the whole thing trades in nostalgia, we’re more likely to reach for old favourites than anything new and whatever you make will be inevitably compared against oldies that are not only excellent in their own right, but carry emotional associations for each audience member. You’re not getting out from under the shadow of Die Hard, or Miracle on 34th Street or Christmas Vacation or Home Alone or Gremlins or Love Actually or Elf or any version of A Christmas Carol. Insert your favourite here. It takes a lot for a new movie to come out of that comparison with its head held high, let alone join the nice list and enter annual rotation.
It makes Tommy Wirkola’s achievement with Violent Night all the more impressive. It’s trashy, it nods to or straight up steals from every end of the Great Christmas Movie Canon, its characters are all, in one way or another, stocks we’ve seen before. It is, with the greatest possible respect, occasionally as stupid as all hell, and it does it all with the freshness and excitement of a kid at 5am unwrapping something that looks suspiciously like a toy drum. Make no mistake, Violent Night is a ride. A consistently entertaining, genuinely hilarious, splatter-core festive delight.
A perfectly-cast David Harbour is Santa – actual, literal Santa. He’s doing what David Harbour does best: being a hard-drinking, disillusioned schlub going through the motions, whose grubby heart, once given a bit of a spit and polish, turns out to be made of gold. His beer-stained and vomit-flecked intro here is great. While on his usual yearly errand Old Saint Nick find himself in the house of the obnoxiously wealthy Lightstone family, gathered once again at the hearth of stone-cold-bitch matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) a family that is, in the great Christmas movie tradition, in need of healing. He’s not the only one creeping into the house though … a high-end hit squad lead by John Leguizamo’s “Mr Scrooge” is after the millions hidden in the vault. The family, which contains an adorable little girl that believes in magic and just wants Mommy & Daddy to get back together, are at gunpoint. It’s up to Father Christmas himself to save the day, get back his mojo and help everyone rediscover the spirit of the season. With terminal force.
Violent Night succeeds by knowing exactly what it is – an R-Rated festive action comedy with a heart of gold which crucially doesn’t lose sight of any of those elements. It’s a maximalist ride that revels in its inventive kills, but always remembers that the best Christmas movies need to maintain their twinkle. The jokes are smart, laser targeted and well spun by a great comic cast who know to stick to their lane (D’Angelo gets all the best lines, Leguizamo knows he’s a mustache-twirling action villain, Harbour is a downtrodden delight) but there’s real heart here too, and that’s not an easy trick to pull off. The arcs and journeys are genuine. It’s rare a film can grab you by both the short and curlies and the warm and fuzzies. There’s also fun to be had by playing “spot the reference” to the ghosts of Christmas Movie past. Die Hard and Home Alone are obvious touchpoints, the latter smartly name-dropped, but there’s also lifts from Gremlins, A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas Vacation, Black Christmas and probably a dozen more.
Look, we’re not making the case for this being a stone-cold, Oscar-worthy masterpiece. Don’t set your expectations to Citizen Kane. Violent Night knows exactly what it is – a high concept good time with the dial set to 11. The skill is in how perfectly that goal is executed, and how easy it’s made to look. It’s a joy. A hideously violent, gloriously silly joy. Watch it with an audience and then go again. And repeat that next year. Merry Christmas.