Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Deck the Halls With Lots of Bodies


Based on the marketing for Violent Night, I went in expecting a fairly straight forward action movie with an overlay of fantasy - basically Die Hard but with Santa instead of John McClane with David Harbour's St. Nick dropping plenty of corny Christmas puns as he rescues a wealthy family from a group of armed mercenaries. What I didn't expect was a blood bath. In that it isn't about suspense or scares, you can't call Violent Night a horror movie but it is way more horror adjacent than I expected in that it is very much a full on splatter movie. There's plenty of action here, sure, but I'd call it a gore flick more than anything else.

The set-up is as basic as the trailers suggest. Santa is on his rounds one Christmas Eve when he alights on the roof of the isolated Lightstone estate just as a pack of ruthless mercenaries (led by John Leguizamo) arrive to take the Lightstone's riches for their own, specifically the $300 million they believe to be stored in the basement vault. 

After gunfire spooks Santa's reindeer, causing them to fly off, Santa finds himself stranded. And when Trudy (Leah Brady), the granddaughter of family matriarch Gertrude Lightstone (played by Beverly D'Angelo of Christmas Vacation in a cool bit of casting), contacts Santa via walkie talkie to ask for help, it adds an extra sense of urgency to Santa's predicament. After instructing Trudy to hide, Santa turns his attention to dealing with all the new names on his naughty list. Ho ho ho! 

Based on its premise, Violent Night could have still been a pretty standard action film. Santa's magical abilities are mostly sidelined (due to the fact that all the alcohol he's consumed earlier in the night has dulled them) so for all intents and purposes he's just a guy running around fighting armed opponents. Violent Night is set up to play out similarly to Die Hard or any Die Hard rip off like Under Siege where one man has to rely on their wits and stamina and resourcefulness to take out a squad of goons. Typically when you think about movies in that subgenre, you don't think about the kills. Sure, you might remember how satisfying it was when, say, Hans Gruber finally got what was coming to him but it's not like thinking about a Friday the 13th movie where it's about celebrating all the specific and spectacularly grisly ways in which various characters get dispatched. 

When it comes to the Die Hard style of action movie, it's all about leading the audience to cheer on the protagonist's ability to beat the odds and turn the tables on their opponents, it's not about serving up graphic decapitations and impalings. But what director Tommy Wirkola (who has previous experience in winter time slaughter with 2009's Dead Snow) and writers Pat Casey and Josh Miller have done with Violent Night is make it more of a slasher film than an action movie. 

Whereas McClane doesn't hesitate to kill his opponents, it usually occurs via trading gun fire or else getting the best of them during a life or death struggle. Harbour's Santa, however, is a murder machine. He doesn't just kill the mercs he's up against, he slaughters them in ways that are more befitting of Jason Voorhees than John McClane.

As much as any slasher movie would, Violent Night revels in its creative kills. And like any true slasher, Santa has his own signature weapon. We get a few brief flash backs to Santa's earlier life as a Viking warrior who wielded a hammer in battle that he affectionately nicknamed "Skull Crusher" and, sure enough, while cornered in a work shed by a kill squad of mercs, Santa comes across a worthy replacement for Skull Crusher and he immediately goes to town. What transpires in Violent Night would be as if there'd been a scene in Die Hard where McClane took on Gruber's team with a machete and hacked them to pieces and for good measure fed them through a mulcher.

There have been many psycho Santas in horror, from the intruder in the classic "All Through the House" segment in Tales from the Crypt (1972) to Christmas Evil (1980) to Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and its many sequels and of course that anti-Santa known as Krampus has made several appearances, most notably in 2015's Krampus, but killer Santas are typically imposters. There haven't been many instances where the real deal Santa has been hands on in the murdering department. 

2005's Santa's Slay starring Goldberg is one that comes to mind in that category but I feel like this is the first killer Santa movie that features the real Santa that also firmly establishes him to be a good guy and where we're meant to cheer on his killing spree. Up until now, filmmakers have had to either make Santa insane or be revealed as an ancient, not as friendly as you were led to believe, dark force in order to make him into a killer. Violent Night is the first time that someone figured out that as long as you put him in a situation where lethal force is acceptable, Santa can go to any extreme and it won't sully his good guy status.  

Slasher movies have always set up certain characters as being ripe for punishment, usually in weirdly puritanical ways, like having them smoke dope and/or have sex but there's no doubt who belongs on the naughty list here. These are very bad people who legitimately deserve everything they get. In order to keep the stakes high and make the battle between Santa and the mercs seem like a fair fight, Santa's status as a magical being is played down, with his supernatural powers having no fixed rules (Santa himself is no expert, admitting on several occasions that "It's Christmas magic...I don't know how it works."), and forcing Santa to frequently operate at a disadvantage. Santa is often on the ropes, fighting tooth and nail for his wins. As much as you might assume that they wouldn't send Santa back to the North Pole in a body bag, Violent Night does a good job of making you wonder if they might. 

If Violent Night should end up spawning a franchise, the sequels will have to ramp up the creative kills in the same way that series like Friday the 13th and Final Destination have had to keep delivering bigger body counts. Even as each Violent Night sequel gets bloodier, I expect they'll keep being referred to as action films but slasher fans will know the score. Just because Santa is a good guy rather than a villain, he's still doing the creative kill thing. Not only does he have his own signature weapon but, like many a classic slasher, he also has a holiday of his own locked down. And unlike with Jason or Michael Myers, there's a ready mechanism in place for putting Santa in new locations. That's his whole thing, after all, he travels the world over! Next time around, I'd love to see him in the roughest L.A. hoods, encountering gangs who aren't showing the proper holiday spirit. But however they chose to go with it, I'll be looking forward to more seasonal slaughters to come. 

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