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When Santa Breaks Bad

‘Violent Night,’ ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas,’ and a typology of movies where the right jolly old elf goes wrong.
December 9, 2022
When Santa Breaks Bad

Everyone knows that Santa Claus is a jolly old elf who delivers toys to good girls and boys all around the world on Christmas Eve. What films in the vein of Violent Night and Christmas Bloody Christmas presuppose is: sometimes he isn’t?

But “isn’t” what? The “Bad Santa” movie comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as befitting a character born into the public domain. He is an empty vessel into which we can pour not only our anxieties and our joys but also our high concepts and our genre beats. He can do comedy, horror, action: You name it, there’s a Santafied version of it. He’s the mythological manifestation of Die Hard, a concept so malleable—Speed 2 is Die Hard on a Boat; Under Siege 2 is Die Hard on a Train, etc.—that Rick and Morty posited Die Hard as a sort of universal monomyth about which every culture creates a version.

Violent Night, then, is an ouroboros of sorts, given that it’s Santa Does Die Hard. After the invasion of a family compound on Christmas Eve by a band of brigands sporting Christmasy code names like Scrooge (John Leguizamo), Santa Claus (David Harbour) is called upon to help save the day and rescue the naughty and nice alike. He’s well suited to the task, not only thanks to his Santa Magic—a bag that holds an endless stream of toys; the ability to whisk himself up a chimney with a twitch of nose—but also the fact that, long ago, he was a rune-covered Nordic warrior who wielded an iron hammer named Skull Crusher against his enemies.

This Santa is less bad than sad, having lost faith in the world’s children: They just want and want, take and take, looking for the next plastic fix to sate their material lust. That’s why, when the film opens, he’s getting sloshed in a bar; as he takes off in his sleigh, he vomits on the head of a friendly inn keeper trying to keep him from falling off the roof in a drunken stupor.

The Sad Santa is a definite type. The idea was more fully fleshed out in 2020’s Fatman, a movie in which Mel Gibson’s Chris Cringle was depressed not only because he had all the problems that come with middle age—financial woes; the burdens that come with being a small businessman; government troubles—but also because he has no ability to shape the world around him, an increasingly fallen place. His inherently passive nature has started to wear at his soul; as I noted in my review, this iteration of Santa wants to be more than a dispenser of goodies: he wants to be a shaper of men.


Perhaps slightly more common is the Mad Santa. As in, the deranged Santa, the insane Santa. I think it’s fair to describe the murderous robotic Santa Claus from Joe Begos’s Christmas Bloody Christmas, in theaters and on VOD this weekend,as a Santa of this sort. Part satire—the film opens with a series of fake ads that can only be described as Verhoevenesque—part down-and-dirty DIY action-horror flick, Christmas Bloody Christmas features the latest in military technology repurposed for holiday cheer, only to see bloody mayhem result.

More Terminator than Papa Noel, Christmas Bloody Christmas’s mechanical nightmare makes the holiday holy hell for Tori (Riley Dandy) and her employee, Robbie (Sam Delich). As they wander the streets of their town trying to find a way to kill the Christmas doldrums (and Robbie tries to find a way into Tori’s pants), MurderSanta 9000 is on the prowl for them. No reason is given; he’s not crossing names off his naughty list or anything like that. He’s just, you know, a murderous robot who absolutely will not stop, ever, until he’s jammed a piece of coal up your … well, you know.

Christmas Bloody Christmas probably takes a hair too long to get to the bloodiness, but that’s fine: there’s an amusingly raw and relentless quality to the action once things get going, and Begos keeps us on our toes by ensuring that no one is safe. Plus, I’m always up for a Mad Santa movie, because there’s something amusing about inverting and subverting Father Christmas and instigating a Santanic panic. Who doesn’t get a perverse thrill out of watching roided-out wrestling legend Bill Goldberg don the red and white cap in the course of murdering a bunch of marks in Santa’s Slay? Or the slasher Silent Night, featuring Malcolm McDowell firmly in Let’s Have Some Fun And Get Paid mode as the sheriff tasked with stopping a Santa on a killing spree?

old saint dick
‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’

The all-time king of this genre is 3615 code Père Noël, aka Deadly Games, aka Dial Code Santa Claus. The 1989 film (which is about a boy setting booby traps in his mansion on Christmas Eve to stop a killer Santa) earned a small measure of fame when its creators sued the makers of Home Alone (which is about a boy setting booby traps in his McMansion on Christmas Eve to stop some robbers) for the similarities between the two. But what’s almost touching about the film is that the Santa in question is less evil than looking for connection. He’s a psychotic killer, sure, but he’s just looking for a friend in this cruel, cold world. It helps that the whole thing is shot like an early-’80s European metal video, all Dutch angles and bizarrely dressed sets and bright sources of light filtered through shafts of smoke.

And then there’s the Bad Santa. Not to be confused with the Bad-Ass Santa (e.g., Kurt Russell in The Christmas Chronicles), the Bad Santa is a pretender to the North Pole throne, someone who dons the costume in order to perpetrate evil. Reindeer Games—the final feature from John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The Manchurian Candidate)is, perhaps, an example of this, though, title aside, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily integral to the plot, and thus not really a Bad Santa movie. (Don’t get me started on why Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, I won’t get started on Die Hard, why did you bring up Die Hard, see, the thing about Die Hard is…)

No, the best Bad Santa movie is Bad Santa—it’s right in the name. And Billy Bob Thornton is, in many ways, the worst Santa of them all, with his misappropriation of Old Saint Nick in the furtherance of crimes and various other debaucheries. Sure, he’s a thief with a heart of gold, and yeah, he teaches young Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) how to stand up for himself to his tormentors, and okay, he learns the true spirit of Christmas, kinda. And it all works; it’s a great movie and slyly funny and just a little mean but still pretty sweet, all told. Yet, he’s still the worst. You want to know why?

Bad Santa 2. Just: its existence. If you’ve seen it, you know the truth: No one deserves a lump of coal like that one.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association