The Truth in a Violent Santa

As if on cue, 2022 has reached into its bag and delivered a jolly old elf who slays.

David Harbour as Santa Claus in 'Violent Night'
Allen Fraser / Universal Pictures

Sparkly tinsel, fresh-fallen snow, a nutcracker, a Christmas-tree sculpture, a tree-topping star: These are some of the objects used as weapons in the most heartwarming holiday film of the year. Violent Night, the dark comedy that premieres this week, features David Harbour as a Santa Claus who has stopped believing in himself—and who, on Christmas Eve, happens to be on the scene when a group of military-grade thieves takes a wealthy family hostage. Thankfully for the Lightstones, this new version of the jolly old elf knows his way around a war zone. Like John McClane swathed in blood-spattered furs, the St. Nick of Violent Night yippee-ki-yays his way across the Lightstone property, fighting greedy foes at every turn. “Ho, ho, ho-ly shit!” he exclaims gleefully while picking off the people on his “naughty” list.

They say that monsters are culture-wide fears cast screenward. Frankenstein’s creation gave shape to panic about technological anarchy; Godzilla’s breath of fire captured the terror of atomic weapons; poltergeists and other formless demons suggest the dangers of a digitizing world. Holiday movies can do the same kind of work, but from the other direction: They reflect what people most fear by making claims about what they most value. It’s a Wonderful Life, premiering in the 1940s, considered both economic and achingly personal depression—and argued that each could be dissolved through the heady warmth of community. Home Alone’s story of a boy abandoned and then lovingly reclaimed by his family arrived during a time when “latchkey kids” were media bogeymen. More recently, an era of loneliness and unpredictability and cynicism has brought the ascendance of the Hallmark-style rom-com: a genre that centralizes love, fetishizes formula, and refuses to apologize for its sugar-sprinkled earnestness.

How fitting, then, that 2022 has reached into its bag and delivered a Santa who slays. Violent Night’s title is not joking around: Its characters meet their ends by way of burnings, beheadings, grindings, impalings. Its scenes depict the varied viscera of the human body so graphically that they could be taught in medical school. And the agent of all the killing is typically St. Nick himself. Before Santa was merry, the film reveals, he was militant. In a flashback, we see him clad in a metal helmet, wielding a hammer named Skullcrusher, covered in other people’s blood.

Made jolly through unclear means, the Santa of the present day blends elfin magic (he’ll tap his nose and whirl up chimneys) with the scars of human war. That fusion differentiates him from other subversive renditions of Claus: The gore here is not an exception to all the seasonal cheer. It is, instead, integral to the film’s definition of holiday spirit. In a moment when violence infuses American politics and culture, here is a Santa whose capabilities as a killer help him believe in himself again.

Claus, at the start of the film, is disillusioned and indignant and suffering from a centuries-long case of burnout. We see him trudging from house to house, greeted with gift requests that say CASH and Amazon Prime boxes clustered around Christmas trees. Even the treats people leave for him have lost their flavor. (“Ugh, skim,” he mutters, as he gazes forlornly at a glass of watery milk.) In his despair, he has turned to drinking. He has taken to calling kids “little shits.” He has considered quitting. After a visit to a pub, he boards his sleigh, drunk and hungover at the same time. He swoops across a city skyline, before a glowing moon—and then vomits onto a woman below.

The Santa of Violent Night is not transcendent in his magic. He lives in the world, somehow, rather than above it, and is keenly aware of its politics. The guy whose purpose is to deliver presents growls, at one point, “This whole planet runs on greed.” The question that animates his story—and his movie—is not just the familiar Can Santa save Christmas? It’s also Can Santa himself be saved?

The violence is a vehicle for those anxieties. Santa is a reluctant warrior—he happens to be at the Lightstones’ home during the attack because he fell asleep in a massage chair—but once he realizes that his fight for Christmas has become literal, he springs into action. A series of theatrical killings ensue. The film is so deeply devoted to gore that even a wide-eyed 7-year-old takes part in it. Trudy Lightstone, played wonderfully by Leah Brady, finds herself in an attic outfitted with potential weapons (ladders, bowling balls, glue, nails). She repurposes them as booby traps. She is inspired by Home Alone, which she has just seen for the first time; her efforts, though, make Kevin McCallister’s sadisms seem quaint. The girl is justified in her brutality, we’re supposed to think, for the same reason that Santa is. The two are defending themselves, and others—but they’re also defending something bigger than themselves. They’re killing people to save Christmas.

One way to read all the carnage is as a metaphor made manifest: The culture wars long ago came for the holiday season, and few things express that better than a Santa who merrily defenestrates his foes. But Violent Night sends the same basic message as Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story: It insists that the holidays are meaningful not just commercially, but morally. The phrase ’tis the season reflects the hope that, this month, people might be warmer and kinder and happier than they are in every other. It is a form of magical thinking. Violent Night’s hook-kicking Kringle both questions and endorses all of that aspirational holiday cheer. The mastermind of the attack on the Lightstones, played with deadpan panache by John Leguizamo, calls himself Mr. Scrooge. He is greedy and sadistic. But his primary flaw is that he has stopped believing in the magic of Christmas. “Bah humbug, motherfucker,” he growls at one point, referencing multiple holiday classics with one economical line.

And so Violent Night offers up a timely amalgam: It is torture porn that is also a morality play. It is as self-consciously values-oriented as any saccharine holiday film, but it expresses those values through violence. The movie, if you can tolerate all the blood, can be delightful. In spite of itself, though, it traffics in cynicism. It reflects a culture so thoroughly permeated with violence that brutality is becoming one of Americans’ shared idioms. On social media, anger expresses itself through death threats. In the world of flesh and blood, the phrase political violence is becoming redundant. Amid all this, a Santa who finds purpose through weaponized tree-toppers isn’t as rebellious as Violent Night thinks he is. The stereotypical values of the season—love, joy, peace—cannot exist, in this film, without violence to enforce them. Santa, too, is a reflection of his time. And this version of St. Nick, for all his merry heresies, doles out a series of concessions. Yes, there is a Santa Claus, the film whispers, before presenting another beheading. Every age gets the holiday movie it deserves. Ours features a Santa who, having lobbed a grenade at his enemy, hangs around just to watch the explosion.