Violent Night (2022)

Is there a word for movies that obtain cult status despite being box-office successes? Violent Night occupies a somewhat awkward place in the pop-culture landscape between studio production and weird outsider. Depending on your opinion of the film, you can either view it as the best of both worlds or the former masquerading as the latter in an attempt to appear edgy.

I had a somewhat mixed reaction to the film myself. As an action flick with a nasty sense of humor (I resisted the urge to say "naughty"), I found it incredibly satisfying. It's essentially a take on the slasher Santa formula with the premise inverted, so the gruesome kills are cathartic rather than horrific, and I had a lot of fun with it. At the same time, I found the story and underlying lore lacking, and the politics of the thing kind of awful, both on its own merits and even more so as part of the larger holiday media tradition.

Let's talk premise before we get into all that, though. The main character is, of course, Santa Claus, played by David Harbour and reimagined as a tired, cynical, hard-drinking man on the verge of giving up on Christmas. So... basically right where Gibson's Santa was at the start of Fatman. It's worth noting the tone of Violent Night is drastically different from that of the 2020 movie: Fatman was sardonic, while this plays up the comedy. If Gibson's take was a '70s crime flick, Violent Night is an over-the-top '80s vehicle, like Die Hard or Home Alone. Exactly like Die Hard or Home Alone, in fact, as the movie openly homages both films.

At any rate, he finds himself delivering gifts in the mansion of a wealthy family being held hostage by mercenaries trying to steal three hundred million dollars the matriarch (played by Beverly D'Angelo, likely cast as a nod to Christmas Vacation) embezzled from the government. Naturally, this places a sweet kid, Trudy, in danger, which prompts Santa to drop his "no intervention" policy and put his life on the line to save her and her family. On the way, her parents rekindle their relationship, her dad repairs his relationship with his mother, and the larger clan reconnects (minus a particularly annoying uncle who gets gunned down).

We also learn Santa used to be a bloodthirsty, warhammer-wielding Viking raider. Trudy helps him reconcile this and channel his past experience into something positive, here represented by him brutally slaughtering a dozen or so armed men who are added in the second act as a callout to Die Hard 2. If you're thinking that's a lot of homages and references, rest assured there's more. The main bad guys all have names drawn from Christmas traditions and specials, including a primary antagonist going by "Ebenezer Scrooge" (played by John Leguizamo), who sort of embodies that character, the Grinch, and Hans Gruber. The end fight is sort of implied to be a contest between Santa and the personification of every fictional character who hates Christmas and wants it destroyed. Neither exactly wins. Santa kills his adversary but is shot, though he's soon resurrected thanks to belief and goodwill.

Again, I did enjoy the set pieces and action. There's an extended Home Alone-inspired sequence where Trudy, having just watched that movie, sets up traps for a couple of the mercenaries, leading to an R-rated, gruesome spin on the holiday film. This is easily my favorite part of the movie, which honestly surprises me (I've never been a fan of Home Alone). Perhaps it's just nice to see Kevin's lethal traps treated as the brutal machines of death they would have been. Or maybe retaining the Rube Goldberg-esque feel and adding in blood enhances the grotesque cartoon nature of the concept in a way that worked for me. Regardless, I really enjoyed this.

I also liked a lot of the mayhem, which - again - I found a little surprising. I don't generally like this stuff in slasher movies or serious action, but here it just kind of worked. This movie was supposed to be exaggerated and ridiculous, and it was structured to ensure you never had to feel too bad for the people getting killed.

...Which brings us to my issue with the film's politics. As enjoying as it is to see bad guys get their comeuppance, it's worth taking a moment to look at what traits the film portrays as bad, which sins are treated as worthy of redemption, and which are not. The movie's villain, whose real name is Jimmy Martinez (is that a Joseph Marley reference to accompany his Scrooge moniker?), hates the holidays because he associates them with economic inequity. We learn he grew up poor watching rich families have everything they wanted at Christmas, and now he's trying to steal that for himself.

Part of me appreciates that this is being spelled out: Home Alone codes its villains as lower class but doesn't acknowledge the implications. Violent Night at least seems conscious of what it's doing. But make no mistake: what it's doing is still kind of awful. The movie is structured as a sort of class warfare, and it chooses to portray the poor as the aggressors in that conflict. The wealthy, for all their problems, are shown to be capable of growth and love in the film.

The history of economic politics around Christmas media is complicated. Prior to the 1940s, the subject was typically presented in a way to shed light on the injustice of inequality. Look at the 1907 silent film, "The Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus," likely the earliest surviving movie exploring the intersection of Santa Claus and violence. In it, he's held captive by a boy who sets out to ensure an impoverished girl is given a Christmas equal to his own. It's confronting the subject in a way that acknowledges excessive wealth is antithetical to any reasonable celebration of the holiday. And of course, it's part of a larger tradition including A Christmas Carol, The Little Match Girl, and countless other Christmas stories addressing this issue.

But over the last eight decades, holiday media has inverted this dynamic, embracing empty platitudes about belief and symbolic internal transformation over economic reform. Violent Night is just one of many examples, but it spells out the underlying reasons for its central conflict more clearly and as such is an unusually clear case of Hollywood's systemic problems with the portrayal of the holidays.

On a similar note, Lindsay was extremely bothered by the movie's willingness to overlook the rich adults' culpability after the presence of the money resulted in the deaths of numerous security guards. While this didn't bother me anywhere near as much, I think it's a fair critique and yet another illustration of the way the movie frames its story in a way that treats the rich as characters and everyone else as expendable.

Moving on, let's talk a little about Santa's backstory. The idea here is that he's a former Viking warrior who, for reasons that may or may not be explained in some hypothetical sequel, was transformed into an ageless yuletide gift giver. A Norse connection isn't entirely out of left field: Odin was a major influence on the character Santa Claus grew into. This idea was also explored (better, in my opinion) in Fatman. Here, it's basically an Easter Egg - if you know about his aspect of the character's history, you'll nod your head when it comes up, otherwise, you'll either be confused or just think it's cool.

While I don't mind the new origin in theory, I think it's wrong for this particular story. Or rather, the way it's utilized clashes with the other character arch they give Saint Nick, and I think it makes the overall premise less interesting. Let's expand on that second point first.

We only get brief flashes of the Viking stuff, and we're never actually shown what precipitated his transformation, nor are we told whether his current incarnation was intended as a blessing or curse. It's mostly introduced to establish why he's a capable fighter and to set up a character arc in which Trudy helps him reconcile his two aspects. Structurally, it feels like there was supposed to be a beat showing that he's ashamed of who he was, but if so it didn't make it to the screen.

Either way, it all feels wrong for the story to me. If this is fundamentally about Santa Claus trapped in a situation where he needs to channel John McClane to rescue a kid, wouldn't it have been more interesting to use a variation of one of the toymaker origins and have him gradually weaponize the skills he'd developed as a builder? I feel like they could have justified the sledgehammer within that context just as easily, and it would have enhanced the tone they were going for.

On top of that, the fact they wedged in two arcs for the character is a fairly substantial structural issue. The movie introduces the idea Santa's become jaded with the holidays at the start of the movie. About thirty minutes later, they introduce the idea there's tension between his past and his present occupation. This second arc is resolved first, then the movie turns its attention back to the first.

Honestly, I wasn't in love with either story, but together they kind of split the movie's attention and prevented themes associated with either from connecting. The character functionally has two unrelated epiphanies in a space of about twenty minutes: it's hard to take either seriously.

For what it's worth, a lot of the Viking stuff feels like it's setting a foundation for future installments. Whether or not those materialize and whether they'll eventually justify the setup is obviously yet to be determined. But as a self-contained story, this would have worked better with some changes.

To reiterate, none of this is intended to imply Violent Night is bad. On the contrary, as a campy action flick with an intentionally absurd premise, it's pretty enjoyable. There were numerous moments and details I loved. On top of what I mentioned at the start, I really like the fact Santa calls guns "gizmos" and doesn't understand them (though this detail would have worked even better if they'd gone with a more conventional origin). I also like the mechanizations and rules of Christmas magic are as strange and inexplicable to Santa as everyone else. He doesn't really know what his magic can or will do, nor does he really control it. That makes for a really fun wrinkle.

This was popular among genre fans, and it's not hard to see why. On the surface, it's an amusing, weird premise contrasting a beloved icon with gratuitous violence. Even I enjoyed it on that level. But while the direction and staging were handled beautifully, the backstory and plot feel lazy and underdeveloped. Slasher Santa flicks, for all their many faults, have delved deeply into the dual nature of the Santa mythos - rewarding the nice and punishing the naughty - for decades. Frankly, Violent Night doesn't display as strong an understanding of these ideas as the majority of movies in that genre, despite being a quasi-offshoot. Likewise, it doesn't try to explore the psychology of its protagonist anywhere near as well as Fatman.

Which isn't to say this is worse than those. Despite its shortcomings, this is far more entertaining than Fatman or all but the best Christmas slasher entries. But while this is a fun movie, it misses countless opportunities to be an intelligent or meaningful one. It makes for an enjoyable couple of hours, but nothing more.