A ranking of bad Santas, from naughty to vice
When I was planning to attend the new David Harbour-fronted film “Violent Night,” out in theaters, a relative decided not to come. “I don’t want to see Sheriff Hopper as Santa being mean and hurting kids,” they said.
Rest a little easier, “Stranger Things” and Harbour fans. Santa is not that bad in “Violent Night.” It’s true, he starts the film at a bar, drinking heavily and spends much of the film with blood running into his mustache and beard (which are more sandy blond than white, indicating perhaps this is Santa in his dad bod, mid-life period). But in the long history of Christmas figures who are more wicked than winking, there are far worse Santas.
In recent years, Krampus, a horned, punishing figure from European folklore, has captured Americans’ imaginations and interest in films like 2015’s “Krampus.” The 2010 Dutch film “Sint” is the dark legend of Sinterklaas, the patron saint of children, who’s not very saintly. But those are different figures from Santa proper. What about films with the big man himself being bad?
Salon ranks some bad Santas in recent fare, ranging from the slightly irate to the downright homicidal.
Santa is pushed around a lot in this Tim Burton 1993 classic. Or rather, squeezed into sacks and questionable tubing to land in a dungeon. Under the circumstances, anyone would snap. But he remains his jolly, rotund self even as he’s kidnapped by Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, which celebrates my personal favorite holiday all year round. Having grown tired of Halloween all the time, however, Jack devotes himself to the study of this strange holiday: Christmas, which includes a plan to abduct the character he believes to be known as “Sandy Claws.”
Taking on the role of Santa himself, Jack perhaps did not quite get the memo. Besides the not-so-jolly kidnapping, he also gives kids presents that are more frightening than festive. But all is not lost, as Jack sees the error of his ways and frees Santa, which allows Christmas to be recouped. In the end, both versions of Santa – the real and imposter – turn out to be giving in their own ways.
In the 2022 film, an obscenely rich family is taken hostage on their compound by a gang of criminals, led by John Leguizamo, intent on robbing them. It’s Christmas Eve and young Trudy’s (Leah Brady) estranged parents (Alex Hassell and Alexis Louder) have come together to bring her to her grandma’s lux estate. Her father gives her an old walkie-talkie with which he (wink wink) says she can talk to Santa. But tonight, Santa (Harbour) is on the job and right now, he’s on the premises.
Harbour is a Santa with a past. Fortunately for Trudy and her wealthy relatives, that past involves fighting. Armed with his trusty, Thor-like hammer named Skullcrusher and sporting a man bun, Harbour straddles the line between jolly ho ho hos and fireman calendar hot. This Santa cusses and kills — but only those on his extensive, magically digitalized naughty list. He’s a fierce protector of children and as such, one of the least bad on this list. The same cannot be said about the script in this adult “Home Alone,” complete with some fairly grisly booby traps.
This horror is real. The department store is crowded with holiday shoppers. The line to see Santa Claus is huge, winding and full of screaming kids and babies. There’s a weird kid in front of Ralphie, and Santa’s elves are sadistic. The department store Santa himself is grotesque in this 1983 film, easily giving Billy Bob Thornton (more on him later) a run for his money. Santa’s nose is red in a way that seems certain to come from drinking, and kids leave his lap screaming. The elves roughhouse them down a slide that definitely doesn’t appear to be up to code. Santa shouts in Ralphie’s face, his bloodshot eyes and nose huge. His voice slows like the devil on a record played backward. He pressures Ralphie into choosing something he doesn’t want for Christmas, then when Ralphie pulls himself together and asks for the BB gun of his dreams, Santa denies him, pushing him away with a literal boot to the face.
The Santa in “Futurama” is big, he’s roboticized and he has a Tommy gun (Harbour’s character only has a bloody red hammer). With shark-like jagged teeth, he’s designed to not only give those who are naughty no presents, but to destroy them, a kind of metal vigilante with a very low threshold for bad behavior. His list is noted with a feather pen, but he’s all cutting-edge technology — and cutting. He puts the red X in Xmas, takes his milk and cookies from “starving orphans” only, has Christmas tree-shaped bombs, and fires at Jesus. As this evil robot Santa says, “A mistletoe is no match for my T.O.W. missile”
The Santa of “Futurama” is an evil robot, but maybe an evil human is worse. Or, one who’s extremely gross and disappointing. As Willie T. Soke, Billy Bob Thornton is a career criminal who poses as Santa every Christmas. Well, it’s good to have traditions. Instead of a sleigh, Thornton’s Santa has a beat-up car where empty liquor bottles spill into the parking lot when you open the door. Most of this Santa’s badness is of the alcoholic, sexual depravity kind. With his dirty red suit hanging open and trademark white undershirt, this gruff, bedraggled Santa looks like a bear after hibernating. He jokes about STDs, has a violent, drunken temper tantrum in front of some small children and beats up some slightly older ones. His Christmas elf (Tony Cox) says it best, “You need many years of therapy.”
This 2010 Finnish film wins the category of best Christmas film that includes male nudity – it’s probably a small category — but this story is excellent. In the movie, evil forces are released after a company drills into an ancient burial mound, which was built to imprison something deadly. That something, frozen in snow, is Santa Claus. Or, Joulupukki, the Finnish figure from lore that developed into Santa. It’s mostly elves who dominate this film. They’re menacing (and naked) enough, like silent and evil sheep, stealing children in sacks. And Santa is more of the Krampus style: gigantic, with horns and all. But the film manages to be both dark and weirdly joyful and heartwarming, with Santa as a surprise in the ice. Let’s put it this way: the elves build their boss a nest.
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A graphic and exploitative slasher, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was the subject of controversy upon its 1984 release, with advertising canceled and the film pulled from many theatres. As Matthew Rozsa writes, this was “[a]ll over a movie that the vast majority of protesters never saw.”
The film tells the story of a killer named Billy, whose severe trauma stems from Christmas. After his parents are brutally murdered on the night, Billy suffers more abuse from nuns in an orphanage, psychological damage which will cause Christmas to be a trigger for him. When he’s forced as a young adult to play a toy store Santa to keep his job, you can guess what occurs. This movie features several bad and murderous Santas, but the main one is Billy who slashes through the story indiscriminately. Many women, babysitters, bosses and cops fall under his ax. He gives a bloody boxcutter as a gift to a child, and his parting words could be the theme of this list: “You’re safe now. Santa Claus is gone.”
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