You know, I’ve noticed many people have had a hard time discussing this movie without crowbarring in a lazy Christmas pun. Often, said puns are in the headline itself as if the writer couldn’t help themselves. Well, I won’t do it. I won’t be a part of your system; I’ll refrain from that indulgence. But Violent Night itself is nothing but indulgence. It’s a brutal, bloody, profanity-laced cauldron that effectively parodies some of the most well-known films we have in the catalog of Christmas cheer. This irreverent tale begins on Christmas Eve, as John McClane Santa Claus (David Harbor) sits in a bar and laments the deteriorating values of our modern society. The kids, he opines, aren’t virtuous enough for the season of giving. The patrons in the bar think he’s just another guy with a seasonal gig at some mall or outside a convenience store.
Au contraire, as Santa has a huge night ahead of him, starting with a visit to Nakatomi Plaza, the mansion of a very wealthy family. So why the hell is he delivering presents to this place? Do they really need the charity? It’s like a store giving Jeff Bezos 30% off with a coupon code and signing him up for the rewards program. However, the seemingly wholesome night is about to take a dark turn, as a group of goons, led by Hans Gruber, the generically named Jimmy Martinez (John Leguizamo), have burglarized the place in the hopes of landing a massive score. If only they knew Santa is also present in the sizable venue, and he’s a cop, someone you don’t want to fuck with.
The opulent bunch at the center of the villains’ target is the Lightstone family, a group of insufferable jackasses led by their matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo). Their Christmas Eve is filled with bickering, hostile business calls, and utter disdain for each other’s presence. Most of the ill-will is between siblings Jason (Alex Hassell) and Alva (Edi Patterson, The Righteous Gemstones), who have a sizable inheritance fueling their beef. Alva is as indignant and rude as she is horny, later begging her fiancée to “make out with me in front of my son!” Gertrude is pushed as a foul-mouthed corporate shark, replete with moments showing her in a filthy phone exchange as her guests arrive. It’s almost funny how forced these moments are, as the elder Lightstone comes in and out of the family room to lay down another colorful bit of language, to the shock of her family. It has the awkward energy and staging of a bad SNL skit or a Tyler Perry TV show.
The hapless sacks, and their captors, are in need of a great deal of Christmas spirit. Unbeknownst to them, Santa finds a friend in the form of Sgt Powell, the tiniest Lightstone, as the two find a way to communicate inside the house. Santa soon learns that perhaps he’s just a little bit wrong about the kids of the world. Maybe they’re not the ones who’ve ruined Christmas; perhaps it was the adults all along. Once Violent Night signals to you what it is inspired by, which is established very early on, the joy is less in suspense and more in visceral elation. Ole Santy has several comical fights with various characters, resorting to the usage of household objects, toys, and Christmas lights to aid in his harried survival. The movie is best seen with crowds and groups who will laugh, groan, and gasp at the increasingly gruesome and savage affair.
But director Tommy Wirkola, along with writers Pat Casey & Josh Miller, have another love letter to hotly debated “Christmas movies” up their sleeve – that being the oft-cited Home Alone (1990). What the film ends up doing is fulfilling the expectations that a homage would promise, but in a much nastier and gory manner. And it’s these scenes that are some of the film’s funniest, involving some inventive traps that would fit just as easily into an entry in the Saw franchise. It’s interesting that comedy has evolved to the point that a movie like this needs to be as violent as it is in order to elicit strong laughs in a theater. The original Home Alone, while inventive, got by on a much more “family-friendly” type of violence, if such a thing exists, yet persists as one of the funniest crowd-pleasers of its era. But in order to draw a similar emotional reaction, Violent Night has to go for the jugular in more ways than one, partially because Home Alone’s audience is older now but also because our standards for what is funny are harder to meet.
It’s the aforementioned relationship between Señor Clause and Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) that makes up the story’s heart. We see glimpses of why this elderly Santa is so jaded, but the movie doesn’t delve too far into his violent backstory as a skilled warrior. Perhaps it’s just there as a gag to play along with the parody (did I mention John McClane was a cop??). But we could have used a few more scenes showcasing all the terrible things Santa has seen and the even worse things Santa has done (a sentence I never thought I’d write). He even has an estranged relationship with Mrs. Clause, similar to that of other action heroes. However, his cynicism is counter-balanced by Trudy’s pure heart, who agonizes over the hostility in her family and her parents’ failed marriage. Perspective is king in stories about human emotion, and it’s usually a hindrance of perspective that prevents us from seeing the things we desire are still possible. Kids, luckily, haven’t had that wish fulfillment stripped from them.
Watching Violent Night establishes itself as a rebuke to folks who won’t recognize the film’s two major points of reference as “real” Christmas movies. Of course, such denials and debates are trivial, and people should indulge in whatever harmless traditions they fancy during the holiday season. But I imagine that Violent Night will immediately establish itself as a modern member of the annual Christmas canon. It’s jovially sophomoric, crass, silly, and action-packed. It also features one of the funniest and most clever 3rd act kills in recent memory. I don’t know if the movie would hold up on constant repeats, but every December seems like a fair deal. And its quest to combine two disparate movies into a “true” Christmas movie, whose genre can’t be denied, is not just successful. It also strengthens those other two movies’ cases to be a part of the yuletide pantheon by way of association, homage, influence, and legacy. It’s a movie playing telephone… or walkie-talkie, not just with cinema’s past, but the audience itself. That communication leads to a valuable lesson. And that lesson, hopefully, is that next year Santa brings stronger precautions than some punk-ass reindeer.