I was in the perfect mood for an action-comedy called Violent Night. Amazing that nobody thought of that title before! Even if the whole bad Santa or hellish holiday idea is a familiar one by now, it’s still as evergreen as Christmas itself. As long as we have to work like dogs so we can afford to go out in bad weather and heinous traffic and crowded stores and buy presents for each other under maximum holiday duress, we’ll need the pressure valve of slapstick comedy with bloody mayhem.
So you can imagine how bitterly disappointed I am to report that Violent Night is an absolute waste of time. It provides practically no relief for your Yuletide rage. It’s a dud bomb that never goes off.
It’s still doing well at the box office, which just shows how intense the public need is for a counteractive entertainment to all those Hallmark Christmas movies. The joke’s on all of us, though, because there’s a huge, heavy dose of Hallmark sentimentality smuggled into this movie too, causing it to drop with a thud midway through, like stale fruitcake.
The only semi-satisfying scene is the opening one, in which the actual Santa Claus (David Harbour), an angry drunk, sits in a dive bar pounding beers and slurring cynical remarks to the fake Santa who tries to offer him cheerful platitudes about that special glow in kids’ eyes when they get gifts. Real Santa bemoans the little monsters to whom he delivers video games every year, who only “want, crave, consume,” just like their irredeemable parents, to the point that he declares this the last Christmas ever. Then, as he takes off from the roof in his soaring reindeer-pulled sleigh, he pukes over the side, which is a problem for anyone who happens to be looking up in awestruck reverence.
What’s going to restore Santa’s Christmas spirit? In the course of delivering gifts in the luxurious compound of the obscenely rich Lightstone family, Santa passes out after eating the homemade cookies left out for him, which “pair nicely” with the rare and expensive liquor he guzzles instead of the milk. He wakes up in the middle of a home invasion as the Lightstone family is being taken hostage. And naturally, he’s going to have to save them, no matter how awful they are.
The Lightstones are generically abhorrent billionaires, making little impression with even the talented Beverly D’Angelo as the ruthless matriarch Gertrude stalking around in spike heels. It’s shocking how few funny lines she has, when the late, lamented Jessica Walter practically laid out the whole joke template for these characters with her memorable turns as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development and Malory Archer in Archer.
There’s a limp attempt to import an interestingly nightmarish rich person with the casting of Edi Patterson as Gertrude’s warped daughter, Alva. She plays exactly the same character she does so well in The Righteous Gemstones, and has a similarly hopeless relationship with her long-term boyfriend, in this case an action-film-star wannabe named Morgan Steel (Cam Gigandet). She also has an influencer son, Bertrude (Alexander Elliott), so named in hopes of currying favor with her icy mom.
It might’ve been funnier if Santa Claus had to somehow save these repulsive people. But instead, there are a couple of nice people thrown into the family mix, there to tug at the conventional heartstrings. They are Gertrude’s favorite son, the well-meaning but weak-willed Jason (Alex Hassell), who has persuaded his estranged wife, Linda (Alexis Louder), and daughter, Trudy (Leah Brady), to endure one more Lightstone family Christmas in exchange for his vow that he’ll do something dramatic to extricate them from the clutches of his monstrous family. Sappily, it’s the adorable true-believer daughter Trudy — looking age ten, acting age five — who persuades drunk and disaffected Santa to intercede and save the whole clan.
This movie’s weak variation on the Die Hard plot gets combined with Home Alone — with Trudy in the Macaulay Culkin role, rigging up booby traps for the hostage-taking mercenaries — but all the thefts from other, better Christmas-themed films are tragically ineffectual. Santa gets ahold of a walkie-talkie that magically allows him to converse with Trudy about their troubled domestic lives while they’re both struggling to defeat top criminal Jimmy Martinez aka “Mr Scrooge” (John Leguiziamo) and his henchmen. This all leads to slow, boring, soppy dialogues that are supposed to be touching and reveal inner depths of emotion. All they actually do is remind you to watch Die Hard again this holiday season.
Piled on top of all that mess are flashbacks showing that Santa Claus was once a Viking berserker named Nicodemus the Red who somehow transformed in the centuries since the year 1100 into jolly old Saint Nick. But he still misses his favorite hammer, which he’d named Skullcrusher. What do you think — before the movie’s over will he find another giant hammer, maybe in a shed or something, to wield like Thor on his way to rediscovering the true meaning of Christmas?
Though David Harbour (Stranger Things, Black Widow) was practically formed by nature to play a doughy, irritable, hard-drinking Santa, it’s no use. This terrible hodgepodge of a movie plays like one of those old online mashups to create mock previews, using reediting and new musical scores to transform, for example, The Shining into warmhearted family fare. Violent Nightsells you on a gratuitously bloody, berserker Santa movie, and then twists around to become sentimental kiddie entertainment with weepy “I believe in you, Santa!” scenes played almost entirely straight. And it’s so sloppily edited, you can’t rely on the gory but unimaginative action scenes to pull you through either.
Director Tommy Wirkola of Dead Snow and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, I hope you get nothing but gray socks for Christmas.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
This article was first published on Jacobin.
Featured image: 87North