David Harbour’s Santa Claus Sees Red in Violent Night: “He Doesn’t Have the Spirit of Christmas”

Exclusive: Violent Night director Tommy Wirkola and star David Harbour explain why dropping Santa Claus into a gruesome Die Hard movie can still be magical!

David Harbour and John Leguizamo in Violent Night
Photo: Universal Pictures

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He sits alone at a bar, downing ale and liquor like they’re milk and cookies. For scenes of a watering hole on Christmas Eve, this isn’t an unusual sight—either for the onscreen proprietor, who’s used to disheveled mall Santas this time of year, or for audiences who know what a naughty St. Nick looks like. Yet the trick about David Harbour’s world-weary Father Christmas in the upcoming movie Violent Night is he’s not a bad Santa. He’s a good Santa who feels bad about the Christmas culture around him. And it’s a culture he might be complicit in.

“When we meet him, he is the saccharine version of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus that we all know and love, I guess,” Harbour tells Den of Geek magazine. “There are the glasses and the jolly belly and the red cheeks, but I think he feels very trapped by this greedy world we live in and by the commercialism he’s created. He doesn’t have the Spirit of Christmas.”

Hence the amusing irony of Violent Night, a Tommy Wirkola action-comedy that smashes The Santa Clause with Die Hard: Père Noël’s experiences a hostage situation that brings him out of his funk and turns this, once again, into the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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With a premise so good it’s a wonder no one has tried it before, Violent Night takes place on Christmas Eve when high-end robbers led by John Leguizamo (as a character aptly named “Scrooge”) hijack a one-percenters’ Christmas party on an isolated estate. The festivities are overseen by a cagey matriarch (who not so coincidentally is played by Christmas Vacation’s Beverly D’Angelo). She proves a cool customer for Scrooge to crack.  But little could he anticipate that he’d soon have bigger problems when Santa comes to town and is delivering presents upstairs.

Says Harbour, “When you get together at Christmas, you just want to kill everyone in your family because it’s your family, and you love them, of course, but you also can’t stand them. So this movie gives you that fantasy where everything around you at Christmas can be used as a weapon.”

Indeed, there are deadly crushed ornaments, electrifying Christmas lights, and even a sequence that would do Kevin McCallister proud. For Harbour though, the holiday season has always presented a Final Destination-like collection of death traps. As the actor notes, “I’ve always looked at those stars on Christmas trees and thought they look pretty dangerous.” Thus his favorite kill in the movie which involves such a star going into a bad guy’s mouth and… you’ll see.

Harbour’s director, meanwhile, favors when Santa turns a childhood delicacy into a lethal weapon.

Says Wirkola, “I would go for the candy cane because it’s not sharp, but you have to make it sharp when you suck on it. Then it’s a decent stabbing weapon. I like that.”

Wirkola is, of course, no stranger to mixing cozy wintertime imagery with genre carnage. Prior to Violent Night, the Norwegian filmmaker made his bones directing the cult classic zombie horror comedy, Dead Snow and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. As he tells us now, there’s just something striking about the color of red on a soft blanket of white. However, Violent Night—which was brought to him by producers as a gonzo conceit dreamed up by Sonic the Hedgehog screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller back in their high school days—is a different animal.

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When asked how he thinks a child who loves Christmas might react to discovering Violent Night on television down the road, Wirkola says, “That was the first thing I thought when I read it. We can do all the crazy action, and we’re going to have some crazy set pieces and a lot of fun and a lot of humor, but at the end of the day when people leave the theater, I really want them to feel like they’ve seen a Christmas movie… If you can nail those moments, and you can make people believe in that, then you can go as crazy as you want for the rest of the film.”

Harbour becomes animated as he also considers the scenario.

“You got to watch the whole movie, because you’ll see little chunks and you’ll think this is a horrible traumatic movie, but if you watch the whole movie, you will have a heartwarming experience and believe in Santa,” Harbour laughs. “I’m not kidding you! One of the most surprising things about this movie, in my mind, is that you think it’s this violent, horrible thing, and it is in moments, but it really has these moments of true tenderness and beauty and warmth. And at the end of the movie, it feels like Miracle on 34th Street! It feels like we believe in Santa!”

Only in this movie Kris Kringle gives the naughty their lumps.

Violent Night opens Dec. 2.