Rudolph’s nose isn’t the only thing shining red tonight in this blood-soaked Christmas caper. We’ve had Billy Bob Thornton sleazing it up as a crummy Father Christmas in Bad Santa, and we’ve had Kurt Russell deliver a refreshingly no-nonsense take on Saint Nick in The Christmas Chronicles and its sequel. Now, Stranger Things and Hellboy’s David Harbour takes up the reindeer reins, and isn’t content with simply talking smack. Violent Night explores just how many ways Santa Claus can kill a man, and it is just as much fun as it sounds. 

Courtesy of Universal

Disenchanted with the consumerist state of the holidays and the greed of children, Santa (Harbour) is in a depressive and self-destructive spiral as he makes his rounds on Christmas Eve. He stops off at a wealthy family’s private estate to drop off their gifts, and ends up caught in the middle of a raid being carried out by elite mercenaries determined to get hold of their private fortune. Left stranded by his reindeer and initially unwilling to get involved, the only way to save the family trapped inside – not to mention Christmas itself – is for this tattooed Santa with a violent past to rediscover his mean streak. 

Violent Night is at its hammer-swinging best whenever Santa takes centre stage. Harbour is just as comfortable in the moments of violent excess as he is contemplating his own sadness and transformation. Although he doesn’t say it openly, he makes it sound like being Father Christmas isn’t a blessing but a curse; a punishment for the sins he committed in his previous life. As deep as Santa’s problems run, they do not dictate the action. This is a comedy first and foremost, and it is in the fight scenes where it really delivers. Director Tommy Wirkola (best known for Dead Snow) finds great humour in turning every conceivable Christmas item into weapons, while the sheer absurdity of Santa Claus kicking ass is never lost underneath the big man’s personal melancholy. 

The physical and visual comedy easily outperforms the dialogue, which gets a handful of laughs but often tramples along the fine line between corny and uninspired. John Leguizamo does a fine job as the villainous Jimmy Martinez, but isn’t given awfully much to work with bar a deep dislike of Christmas and smarmy wordplay. All the major characters in some sense share a lack of love for the holidays, yet Santa is the only one not brought down by somewhat two-dimensional characterisation. Truth be told, you couldn’t care less about what happens to most of the hostages, the main exception being young Trudy (Leah Brady) whose dynamic with Santa helps him rediscover his love of Christmas and forms the heart of the story.

Courtesy of Universal

While the pacing of the film feels very stop and start – it could have done with at least twenty minutes less exposition and family infighting to disrupt the flow of Santa’s bloodlust – what it gets largely right is the tone. Violent Night turns the tables on classic holiday adventures while not forgetting that without them it most likely wouldn’t make any sense. It is crammed full of Die Hard and Home Alone references, the latter being gruesomely parodied as if to show what young Kevin McCallister could have been capable of if he tried. Like all Christmas films, Violent Night also has familiar but well explored themes of tradition and history, modernity, consumerism and family. By the end, what has started as a bloody and crass takedown of Christmas has resolved into a much more traditional Christmas tale. The comedy is lifted by the messaging underneath but never outshone by it, with Violent Night’s innate silliness just about carrying it through.

The script needs some work and there are too many characters, but Wirkola’s film has great fun turning Christmas on its head and invites you to do the same. Harbour’s Santa Claus is a force of nature, dismantling his immortal charm and stoicism in favour of a man in desperate need of healing via hammer play. Violent Night is, predictably, flawed to the last, but almost guaranteed to become a cult holiday favourite and has given birth to a new festive antihero. A real ho-ho-horrow show.

Violent Night is in cinemas now.