The Insane Holiday Classic Nobody Remembers
Yes, Die Hard and Home Alone have become Christmas staples. (Which makes perfect sense, being that they're the same film.) There's nothing quite like cheering on John McClane's ho-ho-homicides, or laughing as the Wet Bandits get skull fractures and Kevin gets future PTSD nightmare fuel. But after years and years of repeat viewings, you may crave some fresh blood. Luckily, we have an ultra-violent Christmas movie gift: Dial Code Santa Claus, aka Deadly Games, aka Game Over (that last one needs to be read in Bill Paxton's voice).
This 1989 French thriller focuses on Thomas, a ten-year-old boy with a mullet so magnificent that it's an affront to God. Thomas is a kid genius straight out of ... well, ever other movie from the '80s. He's also obsessed with action movies, as evidenced by the fact that he cosplays as Rambo before he's even had breakfast.
This is the first year Thomas is skeptical of Santa's existence, which leads him to try to contact Kris Kringle on "Minitel," a pre-internet French computer network. Because even this proto-internet is a toxic garbage place, he's somehow connected with a rando beardo creepo -- an idea writer/director Rene Manzor had after he tried to buy flowers for his mom on Minitel and was "accidentally connected to a sex chat room." (Yes. Accidentally. Sure.)
The same creep subsequently becomes a department store Santa, only to be fired by Thomas' mother for hitting a child, in the dark turn Miracle On 34th Street never took. Later, Thomas' mom is working late on Christmas Eve, and this disgruntled former employee decides to pay the boy a visit dressed as ... old swole Zach Galifianakis?
Meanwhile, Thomas decides to hide underneath a table to confirm Santa's existence himself. Of course, "Santa" actually does come down his chimney. But instead of leaving presents under the tree, he murders Thomas' dog. (Try making a classic yule poem out of that, Clement Clarke Moore.)
What follows is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between Thomas and Old Saint Dick. It actually feels a lot like Die Hard, right down to the hero going barefoot and having a penchant for walkie-talkies. And seeing as it's the story of a precocious kid fending off an intruder on Christmas Eve, it also feels a lot like Home Alone, right down to Thomas setting up an array of booby traps.
Except this movie was made before Home Alone. Dial Code Santa Claus screened at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival market, while Home Alone didn't go into production until early 1990. Which usually isn't a lot of time for one movie to have influenced another ... except John Hughes banged out the Home Alone script in a mere nine days.
Manzor claimed that the Home Alone's filmmakers "remade my movie" and threatened to sue Fox. And it's not as though it wasn't on Hollywood's radar. Producer Kathleen Kennedy was a fan, and introduced it to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who watched Dial Code Santa Claus three times with his son. (As a result, Mazor was eventually hired to direct two episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.)
But regardless of what actually happened, to categorize Dial Code Santa Claus as simply the movie that may have inspired Home Alone is to do it a grave disservice. For one thing, it's beautifully weird, with little touches like a secret passage which leads to what looks like Terry Gilliam's post-apocalyptic garage sale.
The mansion itself looks like it's located in some kind of haunted snow globe.
Ultimately, the movie is a meditation on childhood and belief. Specifically, it's a deep dive into the emotions of growing up and ceasing to believe in fantasies such as Santa Claus. Here, that often painful stepping stone to adulthood is a literal horror story. A small boy is asked to purge his faith in Santa Claus by killing Santa Claus. It manages to perfectly evoke the trauma of being thrust into the real world and forced to leave the comfort of imaginary pleasures behind.
It's likely not a coincidence that Thomas' father is conspicuously absent, perhaps the victim of an unspoken tragedy. Nor is it incidental that the villain, before he dons his killer Santa disguise, is trying to live in a bubble of perpetual childhood. In the film's opening scene, he tries to join a neighborhood snowball fight, but all the kids understandably get the hell out of there.
So, in essence, Thomas is battling a manifestation of his reluctance to mature. Growing up sucks, it's painful and confusing, but it's necessary (like background checks for department store Santas).
While it was originally only in theaters for a week, Dial Code Santa Claus has become something of a cult phenomenon lately. While a 2017 restoration recently played at film festivals and rep theaters, it's unfortunately not on DVD or Blu-Ray outside of France. But as of this month, it's available to stream on Shudder. So if you watch only one movie about a child learning the true meaning of Christmas through shocking brutality, maybe give this one a try.
Added bonus: There's no Dial Code Santa Claus sequel wherein Thomas befriends a homeless woman, only to leave her in a park, presumably to die in the cold, while he hangs out in a luxury hotel.
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