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Dial Code Santa Claus (1989)

First things first: did you know that throughout the 70's and the 80's, the French had their own prototype Internet called Minitel? A telecommunications network where people could log on to buy things, do their banking, and chat with strange men? It's amazing what you learn after you dedicate your life to oddball genre cinema.

This, of course, brings me to Dial Code Santa Claus, a.k.a. Deadly Games, a.k.a. 3615 code Père Noël, the 3615 a reference to the aforementioned Minitel. Last Night, at the Ho Ho Horrible Imaginings Holiday Horror Party in San Diego, I was lucky enough to attend the first ever American screening of the new AGFA 2K restoration of this long lost, French killer Santa movie.

And for unto to us, a genre classic is re-born (Matthew 2:13).

Dial Code Santa Claus, if it's remembered at all, is known for its peculiar similarities to Home Alone, despite coming out an entire year before. Unfortunately, it's never had a proper American release (even on VHS), so its very existence, even among genre nerds, has been a well-kept secret. If you've heard of or have even seen this film, chances are you know a guy with a sketchy bootleg (and a scary basement). But now, thanks to the AGFA folks, American audiences are finally being exposed to this gem. Hence, I suspect Dial Code Santa Claus will very quickly become a perennial holiday tradition in many a household.

The film, directed by René Manzor, begins lovely enough. Thomas de Frémont (Alain Musy, son of the director), a child prodigy and avid action film consumer, has a pretty sweet rich kid life, living in a secluded mansion with his businesswoman mom and doting blind grandfather. He repairs the family car when he's not playing intricate war games with the family dog. And very innocently enough, even at twelve years old, he still believes in Santa Claus.

Running a toy store on Christmas Eve, Thomas' mom has to work late, so she puts him in charge of seeing after his grandfather and making sure the old man gets his insulin shots. Hell-bent on obtaining evidence of the existence of Santa Claus, Thomas rigs the entire mansion with a system of cameras, then camps out under a table in front of the fireplace, waiting.

Oh, he's gonna get his evidence, all right. Just the kind the police take with them once they remove the crime scene tape.

Because unbeknownst to him, his mom just fired a really creepy store Santa for slapping a young girl, and he has made his way out to the mansion for some vengeance à la yuletide. In a bit of a coincidence, Thomas had just been chatting with this same guy in a Christmas-themed chat room on Minitel--back in the day when the only people in chat rooms were young boys and old crazy men pretending to be Santa.

This fake Santa, played by Patrick Floersheim just oozing the creep factor in an unnerving performance, eventually descends down the chimney and the insane, bloody nightmare that I'm pretty sure is supposed to be a kids' movie, begins. Thomas and his grandfather must survive the home invasion, long enough for his mom to make it home from work--for which she must commute from Belgium, because even if we give her the benefit of this movie taking place in real time, it still takes her at least an hour to drive home.

The obvious parallel here is Home Alone, especially as Thomas must use his smarts devising elaborate traps with flaming suction cup dart guns, trap floors, and IEDs made from plastic toy grenades. But in actuality, the film plays out more like a child's version of Die Hard. There's a lot of running and hiding and taunting the enemy over walkie talkies. I honestly would not have been surprised if the kid smoked a cigarette and walked barefoot across broken glass.

Dial Code for Santa Claus definitely descends into some truly bonkers territory, and there are quite a few delightfully cheesy 80's montages and what-the-fuck-I-guess-I-like-Christmas-movies-now moments that I wouldn't dream of giving away. However, I'm willing to guess what will ultimately get lost in this kind of sensationalism is just how good and effective this film is as a horror movie.

I was taken aback how slowly the movie starts. It must be 45 minutes before anything happens, while we're stuck living a day in a life with these happy, annoyingly rich characters. And the film is all that much better for it. No matter how batshit and delirious the film becomes, it's completely anchored by the relationship between Thomas and his grandfather. There is true terror in watching them be hunted by the red-suited psychopath.

Perhaps its closest cinematic cousin is the 2010 Finnish film, Rare Exports. Both films deal with geographic isolation, separated families, childhood imagination, and, uh, Santa Claus. And strangely enough, both, while completely dark and violent, are made for children. Come to think of it, throw Gremlins into the same lot. What is it about Christmas that's so dark for children--or more pointedly, what's so dark about the holiday that adults feel the need to tell children these stories? It's almost as if when you combine capitalism, the doldrums of winter, the loss of innocence, and the general propensity of humans to let down other humans, you're going to get some pretty dark and sordid shit.

Thus I ramble! Dial Code for Santa Claus is a beautiful and engaging Christmas horror film. Please try to catch the new AGFA print in theaters if you can. Sure, it'll be out on Blu-ray in a few months (if I had to guess), but don't deprive yourself of the communal experience of seeing it on the big screen with a group of like-minded freaks,. Best gift you can give to yourself this holiday season.

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