VIOLENT NIGHT movie poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

VIOLENT NIGHT movie poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Leah Brady, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Beverly D’Angelo, Edi Patterson, Cam Gigandet, Alexander Elliot
Writers: Pat Casey & Josh Miller
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: December 2, 2022

VIOLENT NIGHT is a mashup of genres that don’t normally co-exist. Sure, we’ve seen movies about men burned out at their jobs who rise to heroic heights on Christmas Eve (yes, DIE HARD is a Christmas movie). But when that man is the actual Santa Claus, he generally banishes the bah-humbug blues in a gentler fashion, or at least without the hard-R mayhem dished out here.

In VIOLENT NIGHT, we first meet Santa Claus (David Harbour) as he’s getting progressively drunker at an English bar. He is so disillusioned with children’s disbelief in him, and with humanity in general, that he’s thinking of quitting his millennia-old job. Even the kindness of a mall Santa (Frederick Allen) can’t convince Santa that some people still have the holiday spirit.

Then it’s off to the United States, where we meet Trudy (Leah Brady), a sweet little girl who absolutely believes in Santa Claus. But all Trudy really wants this year is something Santa can’t pull out of his magic bag: for her estranged dad Jason (Alex Hassell) and mom Linda (Alexis Louder) to get back together.

Linda has agreed (for Trudy’s sake) to accompany Jason and Trudy to the annual Christmas weekend at the Lightstone family compound, aka Jason’s mom’s house. Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo) is the richest woman in America, and clearly one of its biggest – well, let’s say it rhymes with “riches.”

Jason’s embittered sister Alva (Edi Patterson), her self-obsessed actor husband Morgan (Cam Gigandet), and their constantly live-streaming teen son Bert (Alexander Elliot) aren’t much nicer than Gertrude.

But there’s a big Christmas Eve surprise for everyone when the compound is commandeered by a criminal gang headed up by the ruthless fellow who calls himself Scrooge (John Leguizamo).

Scrooge knows that Gertrude has stashed a secret fortune in the safe, and he wants the money. He and his team have planned for almost every contingency – except for Santa arriving, getting stuck on the premises, and eventually deciding to help save Trudy and her family.

There are a couple of other big plot twists as well, one of them genuinely unforeseeable. VIOLENT NIGHT understandably name-checks DIE HARD and HOME ALONE. It also owes a lot to a certain school of dark family comedy. But none of its predecessors had this level of splatter. It’s worth noting that director Tommy Wirkola previously helmed DEAD SNOW and DEAD SNOW 2, both zombie horror comedies.

What’s most remarkable here is that Wirkola and writers Pat Casey & Josh Miller find a tone and stick with it. The humor avoids getting too shrill and smug (a minor miracle, considering the plot dynamics), and the bloodshed is slapstick (people are in pain, but never terrified).

There’s also an extremely consistent look, with Norman Rockwell designs and colors of red, brown, beige and silver, understated hues and production design that gives VIOLENT NIGHT an appropriately timeless look. We know we’re in the present – people have cell phones, etc. – but it’s a way to keep the surroundings from upstaging the action, and to explain some old-school traps.

David Harbour, though leaner than the traditional St. Nick, fills the bill with all that the role requires, never getting pompous as he becomes more determined. Brady is delightful, D’Angelo is formidable, and Hassell is oddly reminiscent of Hugh Laurie. Leguizamo embraces Scrooge’s villainy with gusto.

There are some disquieting aspects to VIOLENT NIGHT, starting with the notion that, if Santa doesn’t leave a present for children whose parents are too poor to buy them anything, it means they didn’t deserve it. Granted, any children young enough to take this to heart are (we can at least hope) too young for their parents to let them see this movie, but still, the filmmakers could have done better on this one.

Then there’s the fact that the gore is very one-sided. A few good-guy characters die or are wounded, but the major gonzo stuff is reserved for the baddies. There’s a point where we feel like maybe at least the folks who are depicted as especially upstanding might register some reaction to this other than glee. (These may be evil humans getting maimed and obliterated, but they’re still human; in fact, as we are reminded several times, they used to be children themselves.)

VIOLENT NIGHT ultimately executes its thematic templates exactly as we’d expect, despite its singular blend of sensibilities. Whether it’s being naughty or nice on this front is open to debate. On the one hand, we might wish for something wilder than what we get; on the other hand, it may be that we need something familiar and comforting to stabilize the end of this decidedly non-Hallmark sleigh ride.

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