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‘Violent Night’ Is the Chlamydia of Christmas Movies

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What if Santa Claus wasn’t the holly, jolly fellow we know from a zillion Christmas cards, seasonal TV specials and traumatic mall visits? What if he was now just a bitter old drunk, drowning his sorrows in bottomless pints and bitching about his annual delivery of presents to kids? But then one fateful Christmas eve, when our man Kringle is loitering in a swanky mansion and dipping into some expensive brandy after dropping off gifts, a gang of criminals break into the place and hold the occupants hostage. A young girl who still believes in this sodden St. Nick begs for his help. And finally, thanks to the healing power of a child’s prayers and the help of a sturdy sledgehammer, Santa gets his groove back. Everyone debates whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. So why not turn a Christmas movie into Die Hard?

That’s the basic premise of Violent Night, which desperately wants to be the new go-to favorite for those who like their seasons’ greetings splattered in blood. So much so that it liberally borrows from a host of perennial holiday-viewing staples — not just Die Hard but also Home Alone, with the caveat being: what if all those cartoonish booby traps caused genuine bodily harm? And given the particular way that David Harbour’s foul-mouthed, booze-binging Clause turns the human embodiment of yuletide cheer into a complete bastard, the creators of Bad Santa may want to look into a lawsuit. It’s probably not a coincidence that Beverly D’Angelo, she of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, plays the mansion’s rich owner. You can throw in a host of gross-out comedies (a bartender gazes up in awe at a sled powered by flying reindeer, arcing across the sky…and then gets covered in Santa’s vomit) and various midnight-movie offerings that traffic in gore and absurdity as well. Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola is best known for his Dead Snow movies, which somehow turned a word jumble — medical student ski vacation Nazi zombies! — into a franchise. Subtlety isn’t on the gift list, in other words.

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We say all of this at the risk of earning boulder-sized lumps of coal in our stockings, because what we’ve described above sounds like it might be fun, or funny, or the sort of thing that delivers a giddy psychotronic jolt when viewed with friends. That’s the least you could expect from a movie that revolves around Enraged Santa Crushes Skulls With Hammer Named ‘Skullcrusher,’ right? Right?!

Violent Night is none of those things. It is violent and most of it does take place after dusk, so at least the title is accurate, we guess. But this is the sort of lazy, slapdash, self-impressed excuse for “edgy” entertainment that makes you enraged. It’s not even so-bad-it’s-good; this is so bad you’re tempted to kick those responsible for it right in the jingle bells. The sort of wannabe cult action-comedy that gets off on its own displays of horrible behavior and listless set pieces, this Santa-goes-berserk story wants to be a new alt-holiday classic. Instead, it’s essentially the chlamydia of Christmas movies: agonizing, inflammatory, and accompanied by burning sensations likely to make you think twice about your life choices.

Nothing against Harbour, who commits to the seedy, Santa-gone-wild act with gusto (you can practically smell the liquor and regret wafting off of him) and proves he could make a fine beefy action hero with the right role — just not this one. Or, for that matter, Cowboy Bebop‘s Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder and Leah Brady (she’s the tween who inspires Kringle to get in touch with his Viking warrior past), playing the most decent members of the extended family that have gathered together to celebrate and find themselves in the middle of a home invasion. As for D’Angelo’s amoral power broker and John Leguizamo’s commander-in-thief, they both try to outdo each other in sheer toxicity and whoever wins, we all lose. Still, ’tis the season for forgiveness. Like mammoths sinking in a tar pit, everyone just seems to be doing their best in a bad situation. Not even our beloved Edi Patterson, doing a diluted version of her comparatively-less-awful-sibling routine from The Righteous Gemstones, gets away unscathed.

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Instead, blame those behind the camera — the ones who wrote the insipid dialogue, who don’t seem to know where to place a camera, who keep things at a pace located somewhere between dragging and a dead stop, who can’t seem to inject imagination into the payback moments and couldn’t be bothered to generate even the bare minimum of excitement or coherence during fight scenes. (The movie bears the logo 87North, the production company co-founded by John Wick/Atomic Blonde director David Leitch, but you wouldn’t know it came with that pedigree from the poor way these sequences are staged.) There’s no need to name names; they know who they are. If we really wanted to make them feel bad, we’d just force them to watch this unholy mess one more time. Violent Night wants to be kinetic, outrageous, perverse and pulpy yet playful, both sentimental and Scrooge-level misanthropic. It doesn’t want to put in any work to make any of those elements work, however. And for that, the movie deserves to find a present like this under the tree. Game recognizes game.

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