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Dial Code Santa Claus re-release Photo by Marie L. Manzor

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Before Home Alone, there was the cult boy-vs.-Santa film Dial Code Santa Claus

Buried in the early ’90s, the cult film is finally seeing the light of day

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The holiday season is here, and for many, that means an annual viewing of Home Alone, the tale of a little kid left alone in house by his forgetful family who defends himself from two robbers by brutally violent means. But few champions of Chris Columbus’ hijinks-filled Christmas movie realize that before Kevin McCallister beat Harry and Marv to a pulp, a French cult classic delivered the same premise in a bigger, bolder way. If you’re never heard of Dial Code Santa Claus, a re-release from The American Genre Film Archive assures you finally will.

Dial Code Santa Claus’ protagonist, Thomas, is a nine-year-old hybrid of John McClane and Richie Rich. He’s obsessed with computers and action movies, and his imagination and ingenuity are almost as big as the chateau in which he resides with his grandfather, his beloved dog J.R., and his wealthy and beloved mother. He’s also kind of a genius kid, so when his jerk friend Pilou tells him that Santa isn’t real, and his mom goes to work on Christmas Eve, Thomas builds a series of surveillance cameras around the mansion connected to a wrist-size computer in hopes of catching Santa Claus on tape.

Released in a handful of Parisian theaters for only one week in 1990, Dial Code Santa Claus (also known as Deadly Games, Game Over and Hide and Freak in certain corners of the world) is all but unknown outside of Europe, where, for decades, you could still only find it through VHS copies and bootleg DVDs. Only last year did the film get a French Blu-ray release after fans worked with the director on a new restoration. The effort led to the first U.S. screening of the film earlier this year at Fantastic Fest in Austin, and a rollout into a number of Alamo Drafthouse theaters throughout the country this month.

Writer-director René Manzor tells Polygon that Dial Code Santa Claus was inspired by the big, action blockbusters of the 1980s, with Stallone and Schwarzenegger influencing the look and performance of young Thomas. The whole idea may have been ahead of its time.

“I didn’t want to do a serious copy of those big action movies,” he says. “I wanted to tell the story from the kid’s perspective, to wink at the audience and break the fourth wall like Deadpool.”

dial code santa claus Photo by Marie L. Manzor

Indeed, the film is such a love letter to the ’80s that you would be excused for thinking it was made in 2018 by the Stranger Things crew. We first see Thomas waking up in a bed the shape of a bomber jet cockpit. In montage set to a a “Gonna Fly Now” soundalike, the boy suits up with oiled muscles, face paint, the Rambo-iest mullet and headband combo you’ve seen.

In an attempt to ground the film in modern reality, Manzor embraced technology of the time, which today makes the film feel out of time. To anyone who didn’t grow up in France during the ’80s, use of the Minitel network, a basic predecessor of the Internet that gave users access to a directory of phone and addresses, as well as message boards and online shopping, almost looks like a retrofuturist plot device. Minitel users dialed codes to access a server, then dial a word or code for what you want to look for, be it “flowers”, or “Santa Claus” (hence the film’s title).

While playing with his friend Pilou, Thomas dials on the Minitel network to access a chat room that supposedly connects people to Santa Claus. The boy challenges Santa to show up and prove he exists. Unknowingly, he is connected to a murderous mall Santa that his mom just fired, giving him the perfect excuse to exact revenge in a deadly manner.

René Manzor on the set of Dial Code Santa Claus
René Manzor on the set of Dial Code Santa Claus
Photo by Marie L. Manzor

Manzor got the original idea of the film while using Minitel to buy flowers for his mother, but when he accessed the directory, he accidentally connected to a sex chat room. “So, I started to imagine this bad connection happening to a kid,” Manzor says. “What if a kid tries to connect to something innocent like a Santa Claus messenger service but is instead transferred to a live chat room with a dangerous individual. He still believes he’s talking to the real Santa Claus, when he’s chatting with a crazy killer.” The notion is still compelling in the age of the internet, where every kid has instant access to unimaginable horrors, but it’s easy to see it not being as effective in 1989.

Once the evil Santa (Patrick Floersheim) gets to the house, Dial Code Santa Claus goes shifts into a slasher horror mode, and Thomas is forced to use his ingenuity and a variety of traps and gadgets to defend his home from whom he believes to be the real Santa. Floersheim plays “Santa” more like Charles Manson than the jolly father Christmas, and far more dangerous and deadlier than the Wet Bandits from Home Alone. The use of the giant house pays off, as the different rooms give the cat-and-mouse game room to breathe, and the Manzor the opportunity to explore different locales and dynamics. The film fluctuates between whimsy children’s humor and horror, using the kid-friendly first half to lure you into the horrors to come.

Dial Code Santa Claus doesn’t shy away from emotional stakes. From the moment Santa enters the house, you feel the same fear Thomas feels. Alain Lalanne (the director’s own son) infuses him with a vulnerability, and it’s heartbreaking to see Thomas trying to comfort his grandpa, telling him that everything will be fine and that he has the situation under control. Much like John McClain, he isn’t a bulletproof superhero, but a flawed and vulnerable human. And like the Die Hard hero, Thomas is also barefoot for most of the film.

santa and tommy in dial code santa claus Photo by Marie L. Manzor

From the basic premise, to the specifics of the traps set up by Thomas, you can probably see why Manzor threatened with legal action against Home Alone, which came out two years after Manzor finished shooting. The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival market in May 1989 in order to find potential distribution companies interested in buying the film. An American producer approached Manzor to make a remake of the film.

Unfortunately, in 1990, Home Alone came out and became the highest-grossing comedy at the time, Dial Code Santa Claus was denied a U.S. release and the remake never happened. Surprisingly, people in Columbus’ orbit lauded the film, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who hired Manzor to work for them on Young Indiana Jones.

After vying for a proper release, Dial Code Santa Claus opened the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in 1990, and according to Manzor, received a standing ovation from an audience that included Roman Polanski, Wes Craven and Ray Bradbury. The film also won Best Director and Best Film at the 1990 Fantafestival in Italy, and played at the biggest genre festival, the Sitges Fantastic Film Festival, that same year.

santa claus in dial code santa claus Photo by Marie L. Manzor

The film didn’t get that same reception in France. Manzor tells us Dial Code Santa Claus only played in theaters for one week, as the distributor wanted a technical release, long enough to classify as a “movie” in order to sell it at a higher price on TV, which was common at the time. Surprisingly, the film was a success on video, and remained at the top of sales and rentals in France for six months.

Dial Code Santa Claus never got the proper theatrical release it deserved, but now, three decades later, any curious cult-movie enthusiast can discover the gem. The wait may have been worth it: As Manzor points out, when the film finally screened in the States earlier this year, the audience response was different than in France — in a positive way.

“It was very weird to me, to see the film play as I intended it to, only 30 years after its release.” At the time, an homage like this wasn’t common — you either made a serious action movie or a straight parody of them. Today the film’s genre-blending nuance makes much more sense. “I wanted to make the audiences smile with a feeling for nostalgia for that time when you also dressed up as an action hero and felt powerful.”

To find out where you can see Dial Code Santa Claus, check your local Alamo Drafthouse listings. Find more information about the release and upcoming Blu-ray on the American Genre Film Archive website.

Rafael Motamayor is a freelance TV/film critic and reporter living in Norway. You can find more of his work here, or follow him on Twitter @GeekwithanAfro.

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