It’s nearly 30 years since France produced the all-time craziest Christmas movie: Dial Code Santa Claus (aka 36:15 Code Père Noël, and Deadly Games), the story of a young boy contending with a deranged Kris Kringle that plays like a cross between Home Alone and Silent Night, Deadly Night. Brutal, deviant and corny, it is, in a word, un-freaking-believable, and come this week, American audiences will finally get a chance to experience this wacky holiday adventure for themselves, courtesy of a new re-release from the American Genre Film Archive and Alamo Drafthouse.
Screening nationwide through January after a restored version debuted earlier this year at Fantastic Fest, Dial Code Santa Claus was first released in its homeland in March 1989, but never made it across the Atlantic—save for VHS bootlegs. That immediately earned it a cult following—and with extremely good reason, since the full-length feature is a wall-to-wall barrage of Yuletide madness, filled with more pre-teen precociousness, overwrought melodrama, expressionistic direction and murder (of people and beloved family pets) than any of its Christmas-cinema brethren.
If you love Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin McCallister but wish he’d been more of a Rambo junkie who’s forced to square off against a sadistic St. Nick, this is the film for you.
Dial Code Santa Claus promptly establishes its warped festive tone with the sight of an Eiffel Tower snow globe being crushed by a garbage truck, followed by a snowball fight between city kids that disperses after a bearded adult weirdo (Patrick Floersheim) tries to join in their fun. From there, writer/director René Manzor cuts to Thomas (Alain Musy) waking up in a giant WWII-era airplane and donning Rambo gear—headband, camouflage face and arm paint, knife, sword—set to a cheesy rip-off of “Eye of the Tiger.” This outfit is his uniform for an ensuing game of war with his pet dog J.R. that’s played in the mansion he shares with his mom Julie (Brigitte Fossey) and grandpa (Louis Ducreux)—a fairy-tale abode filled with trap doors, secret passageways, mysterious toy rooms, a menacing boiler-basement out of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and an attic control center where Thomas operates a bank of then-cutting-edge computers.
Julie is the manager of a large department store, and has to work on Christmas Eve, thus leaving Thomas to care for his grandpa, a rickety old cartoon in striped pajamas who can’t see well and needs insulin shots. A Richie Rich-style supergenius with a giant mullet, Thomas is an expert at both computer programming and fixing his mom’s old car, which he uses to take grandpa out for a spin (“No speeding this time,” gramps cautions). Despite his absurd maturity—and the killjoy claims of his best friend Pilou (Stéphane Legros)—Thomas still believes in Santa Claus, going so far as to write him an annual letter. This charms his mom, who opts to reinforce her son’s immature fantasy by lavishing him with even more presents than usual from her retailer.
Thomas decides to stay up late and use his elaborate security surveillance system to record Santa’s arrival, even though his mom has warned him that if you try to see the jolly old soul, “he’ll get mad and turn into an ogre”—or, as Dial Code Santa Claus reveals, he’ll turn out to be a pedophilic old bum with a taste for bloodshed! The aforementioned creep strikes up a menacing conversation with Thomas over France’s nascent internet system Minitel (the film’s most prescient plot point!), after which he gets a job as one of Julie’s store Santas. Alas, his employment doesn’t last long, as he’s fired by Julie for petting a young girl’s cheek and, once she pulls off his beard, slapping her. In response to his dismissal, the nutjob stows away in the delivery truck headed to Julie’s house and infiltrates her home, using a can of “snow spray” to turn his hair and beard white.
Then, the lunatic lowers himself down the chimney into the fireplace and, as Thomas watches from beneath a dining room table, brutally stabs the boy’s beloved pooch to death in the neck.
Director Manzor shoots this insanity, and the even wackier action that follows, with zooms into hyper-close-up, canted angles, extreme slow-motion and hyper-gauzy lighting. The film looks like some Hallmark card-esque nightmare, and that impression is enhanced by its story’s surreal logic. Stashing his grandpa first in a hidden-toy-wonderland chamber boasting a rope bridge and a totem pole, and later in a suit of armor, Thomas gets to deal with Psycho Santa on his own. He escapes capture by navigating his snowbound castle’s rooftop turrets, and by setting traps involving crossbows, darts, tripwire, fire and live grenades. Meanwhile, when not hunting for Thomas, the villain slays a cop and mansion caretakers, and also stalks Pilou in a snowy tree-lined outdoor path in a scene indebted to The Shining.
By the conclusion of Dial Code Santa Claus, Thomas is literally knifed in the leg by Santa (he tends to his wound with alcohol and a wooden support plank), and has to fatally shoot his enemy at point-blank range. Killing Santa is certainly one way to depict an idealistic young boy’s loss of innocence, and it’s to Manzor’s depraved credit that he doesn’t pull his punches in milking this madness for all it’s worth, replete with numerous images of Thomas weeping for his mommy and wailing about his in-peril grandpa. In this carnivalesque saga, adolescence is a phase that ends at the barrel of a gun, as Thomas becomes the figurative man of the house (his dad, tellingly, is absent; mom has shacked up with a new boyfriend) by assassinating the embodiment of youthful make-believe in a grimy, nasty mano-a-mano showdown.
“It’s my fault, mom. I wanted to see Santa Claus,” says Thomas as he sits beside the corpse of his red-suited adversary, a thousand-mile stare affixed to his face. As befitting a work determined to be as over-the-top inappropriate and cynical as possible, Dial Code Santa Claus ultimately leaves its protagonist in that haunted state, grappling with (undeserved) guilt over having brought such a terrifying ordeal upon himself. It’s a cheesy ’80s holiday classic of Goonies-esque high-tech gadgets and slapstick comedy, and sexualized slasher-movie violence that results in psyche-scarring PTSD.
Merry murderous Christmas, everyone!