Review: ‘Violent Night’ (Yule love it!)

Santa’s coming to town… with a vengeance.

Santa Claus (David Harbour) is having a tough couple of years… or perhaps centuries. Kids only seem to want cash and/or video games, and greed is everywhere. It’s all take, take, take, including Santa taking to the bottle to get through another Christmas eve. As bad as things seem, it all takes a dire turn when he lands on the Lightstone family’s rooftop to discover gunmen have invaded their home. A true believer high up on the nice list, Trudy Lightstone (Leah Brady) asks for Santa’s help through a walkie talkie her father (Alex Hassell) promised was a direct line to Kris Kringle. After enduring personal threats from a self-styled Mr. Scrooge (John Leguizamo), Santa shelves his “Saint Nick” status to fall back on old habits he hasn’t entertained in over a millennium… and the lumps given aren’t going to be coal.

While audiences didn’t quite understand his Hellboy was more accurate to his comic origins than Guillermo del Toro’s films starring Ron Perlman, “Stranger Things” alumni David Harbour stars as a not-so jolly ol’ elf reluctantly drawn into a killer situation he’d prefer to avoid in the most John McClane of ways. From a script by Pat Casey and Josh Miller directed by Tommy Wirkola (who brought audiences the bizarre retelling Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), this holiday cocktail is served with a grindhouse chaser, promising Christmas quips and holiday-themed carnage that would put a smile on Kevin’s face from Home Alone. Sure, there’s a kid in the movie, but is this movie really for kids?

A little Bad Santa, a bit of John Wick, and more Die Hard references than you can shoot Hans Gruber off a roof at, Violent Night fulfills the absurd promise of the fake “The Night the Reindeer Died” trailer from Bill Murray’s Scrooged, right down to the white parkas and snowmobiles. With single-take sequences of Santa kicking ass and getting his ass kicked, every victory is earned, but where similar films would draw the line, Night careens over the edge and goes farther than imagined in the most wonderful kind of way. This isn’t to say kids wouldn’t love it, it’s just that parents better know before they go before exposing them to brutal decapitations and buckets of gore.

With a slow ramp-up to Harbour’s Santa deciding to go First Blood on a house full of unwanted guests, the idea of how and why is explored in a surprising way, giving Kringle a “clausable” backstory without exactly spelling it out; now you’ll know why messing with Mr. Claus is a bad idea… and why Harbour is perfectly cast for this version. John Leguizamo steps up to wallow in villainy, a custom-made foil who isn’t only willing to go toe-to-toe with Bad Ass Santa but is intent on settling up. Beverly D’Angelo as matriarch Gertrude Lightstone is a special surprise, and Leah Brady as Trudy is pitch-perfect as an innocent with a soft spot for vigilantism.

Fully self-contained and gratuitously satisfying, there are a few ideas left over that could be sequalized, but Violent Night is a ready-made holiday cult classic for watching between Krampus and Gremlins with a little Die Hard before midnight. While lighthearted conceptually, the kills are elaborate, brutal, and graphic; here’s a second warning for parents. Harbour claims the original script was brimming with eighties-ish catch phrases like “seasons beatings” featured in early trailers before being cut, but maybe it isn’t too much to ask for a catch-phrase cut to be included on the Blu-ray.

Violent Night is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, some sexual references, and Santa’s approval for use of the word “anus.”

Four skull recommendation out of four

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