‘Deadly Games’ AKA ‘Dial Code Santa Claus’ (1989) Review

“And even though you’re Santa Clause, I swear you’re gonna be scared!”

Merry freakin’ Christmas, Wastoids! As much as I’ve been invested in ‘non-holiday’ horror films this year, even the Grinch in me couldn’t watch just any ol’ horror movie for a Fear Flashback Christmas. Hopefully you’re all safe and sound in your bunkers, having a great Christmas morning (or whichever holiday suits you). I’ll be hoping a storm doesn’t blow out the lights up here in Maine, but even if it does, we’ll be celebrating.

Dial Code Santa Claus (3615 Code Père Noël is the original French title) was not even on my radar until recently. It’s a French “home invasion” holiday film that came out in 1989, but it never got a US release until a few years ago. I’m not sure how I ran across the trailer – probably in my Twitter feed – but once I saw it, well… see for yourself.

Come on! That looks crazy! A bizarre 1989 French Christmas Horror movie I’d never even heard of? Yeah, I knew what I had to do.

The Medium
Dial Code Santa Clause is currently a Shudder exclusive for streaming, and that’s how I watched it. There’s a 4k Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome with a bunch of extras, and this is going on the list of films to pick up when I get a chance.

The Movie
Dial Code Santa Clause is about a young boy named Thomas (Alain Lalanne) and the night he decides to stay up to try and get proof of Santa Claus. He’s at that age where his friends are starting to tell him that Santa isn’t real, that the gifts are all from their parents. He’s not ready to believe that yet, so he wires the house with video cameras tied to his wrist control unit and…

What’s that? Oh yeah, see Thomas’ mom (Brigitte Fossey) runs one of the most successful department stores in France (Printemps) and they’re stinking rich. (Like, live in a mansion that looks like a castle rich.) And Thomas is a prodigy – equally adept at programming computers and repairing classic cars. So not only does he have closed circuit TV cameras in the house, he’s got trapdoors, secret passageways and security doors – all controlled from a bulky wrist unit. Mostly he uses it to play various games of war with his diabetic Grandfather (Louis Ducreux) and his dog.

Unfortunately, he’s garnered the attention of a delusional man (Patrick Floersheim) posing as Santa Claus on the Minitel – a sort of early version of the internet, where you could dial in codes to access basic message boards and chat rooms. This man has an unhealth interest in children, and soon he has a job at the very Printemps where Thomas’ mom is working. A job as one of the department store Santas.

While there’s a slight uneasiness to these early scenes it’s actually all fairly light-hearted and there’s a definite warmth and holiday spirit to the film. Thomas and his family are lovely and even Pere Noel seems only slightly lost and dopey. At least until he slaps a kid for making fun of his face. Then we begin to see the dark notes creeping in. He’s fired, of course, but he manages to hide away in the truck full of presents heading to Thomas’ house…

Thomas is a bundle of 80’s movie tropes. He’s the precocious kid, familiar with computers. He likes to dress up like an 80’s action movie star, complete with camo makeup and bandana keeping his mullet in check. He plays D&D with his grandpa. (And he’s right – being 1st level for two years IS too long.) The pop-culture nods come fast and furious while he plots and plans to stay up and catch Santa on video so he can prove to his friend that the big man is real.

And when Santa comes down the chimney the film pours on the syrupy music, the soft lighting and the slow zoom into Thomas’ excited face while the holiday music swells.

And then Santa kills Thomas’ dog and it’s like a bucket of ice-cold water in the face.

The man isn’t just delusional – he’s downright homicidal. And Thomas is alone in the house with his ailing grandfather. The rest of the movie becomes an increasingly violent cat-and-mouse game between a murderous Santa Claus and a precocious boy and his house full of secret rooms and traps.

It’s an odd combination of late 80s/early 90s tropes – it’s Home Alone meets Rambo via Richie Rich. Throw a touch of The Goonies in there too. (To be clear, Dial Code Santa Clause came out a year before Home Alone and the director, René Manzor, has been vocal about his belief that the later film was inspired by his.) Watching it now it almost looks like a film made recently by someone who only knew the 80’s by it’s pop culture, that’s how many references and homages are packed into the film. Just check out the posters in Thomas’ room. Or listen to the shmaltzy (but rockin’) Christmas song by Bonnie Tyler that plays during a montage of Thomas’ burying his dog in the basement.

This movie is bizarre, but in a good way. It’s a dark mashup of holiday treats and home invasion horror. There are secret rooms (including an awesome Indian Jones-ish cache of old Christmas toys), trapdoors, and deadly booby traps. There’s car crashes, snowball fights and fire arrows (well, it’s a suction cup arrow but it IS on fire). There’s heartfelt moments with a young boy and his nearly-blind grandfather and then Santa is murdering a cop in the snow.

If I’m nitpicking, the whole cat-and-mouse section of the festivities goes on a little too long, with a few too many “A-Team gearing up” montages of Thomas and his gear. I was never bored for long, though, and sequences like Thomas’ escape onto the sloping roof and the model work involved are well worth the odd moments of Thomas strapping half a chair to his leg because he got a minor cut.

The Bottom Line
Dial Code Santa Clause is a crazy, funny, dark, warm, violent and heartfelt holiday horror film that is going to become an annual holiday watch for me. If you think Home Alone as directed by Dario Argento then you’re coming close to what Dial Code Santa Clause feels like. Really, though, it’s kinda indescribable – and you should definitely check it out for yourself.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.