This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Willa Rae’s turn to do the damage. Here are Elbee‘s thoughts on Dial Code Santa Claus.
Helping me on this recommendation is my partner, Andrew Bargeron, illustrator and designer, podcast producer, and one-half of the old Got Me A Movie show, right here on Cinepunx.
Elbee: This movie was recommended by a relative newcomer to Cinepunx named Willa Rae. Her recommendations were very heavy.
Andrew: What do you mean?
E: Her theme was perception. How it pertains to retelling of stories, like folklore type things. “Historic events from a different narrative.” And this is an interesting pick for that. She says this movie would make a good companion piece to Rare Exports.
A: I can see that. The protagonists are both children. One kid is left to his own devices, and the other kid is trying to be like the hunter men. And they both end up being really dark spins on a Christmas theme. One where Santa is literally a villain, that’s Rare Exports, as far as like, a literal monster, I mean. And the other one where Santa is a psycho guy. And it’s actually shattering the kid’s perspective of what the “happy jolly Santa down the chimney” is. And that is…what is the title? It’s a weird title.
E: Well, it’s got a few different titles. The French is 3615 Code Pere Noel. But in English, it’s Dial Code Santa Claus, also known as Deadly Games and Game Over.
A: I’m not sure why “Game Over.” That’s a video game-sounding thing. And “Deadly Games”…look, so the protagonist is the son, the heir of a toy magnate who — I guess he died? So his wife is taking it over, and she’s working overtime on Christmas Eve. Because for some reason, their toy company, which is huge, is having some kind of problems, I guess. So they think they have to do this big Christmas Eve push.
E: They’re trying to put out as many gimmicky things as possible to draw the people in. Like, she says she wants the cashiers all dressed up, and have fire breathers and other weird circus things going on. And as many Santa Clauses as possible. “Santa Clauses?” “Santas Claus?”
A: “Santa Clauses” is the legal term. Probably. So that’s like the way our villain comes in to the picture, through being hired as a Santa. But it’s just briefly set up that he’s at least a voyeuristic kind of creep. Like, he watches kids play. But he wants to play with them, and they’re like “Nah, get outta here. You’re a creepy old guy.”
E: Yeah, it’s a strange set up to his character. One reason I like this movie a lot is that if you think about other “Killer Santa” movies of the time — of the ‘80s, of the ‘70s — they follow the killer most of the time. It’s the story of the killer, and it’s just kind of boring, honestly. Not much mystery or intrigue there. This one has a little bit of that, but it’s mostly the kid’s story.
A: So they just set up the Santa, and that little bit is all of your “following the Santa around.”
E: Right, there’s enough glimpses into his psyche that we get what we need to understand. He’s a creep. He doesn’t like to be pushed away, and he just wants to play with the kids. But it doesn’t go so far as to say he’s a pedophile or something, but it seems to imply that he wants to play to the point of harming. Especially when he is pushed away.
A: Like when the little girl on the street insists he’s not the real Santa. He smacks her. That was harsh. So that’s an indicator theret that this guy is off his nut, just for that. Smacking a girl for being “disrespected” as Santa. There’s obviously something loose in his brain.
E: I really like the touch later as a follow up to that scene where, instead of putting on a fake beard, he sprays flocking — that fake snow for windows — he sprays that all over his hair and his beard. And he’s very satisfied with himself doing that, as if, like, “Now they’re not gonna call me fake!”
But yeah, this movie does follow the kid mostly. We should talk about this kid.
A: There’s a ton of setup about the kid, and also I kinda think It takes a bit of forever to get to the more tense parts of the film because there’s so much setup for him.
E: Well, it’s okay, though.
A: Is it?
E: I think it is! It gives us a reason to care about this kid.
A: He’s Richie Rich.
E: Well, sure, but he’s not a twerp.
A: He’s Richie Rich that loves ‘80s action, so he’s dressed like Rambo all the time. He has the crappiest mullet. It’s like a rat mullet. It’s such a patchy job! But the thing I like about the kid isn’t just that he’s into ‘80s stuff like I was into ‘80s stuff back in the day. You know, like, war toys and whatever. That’s not the thing I relate to. I relate to him being a gentle, kind kid to everybody around him.
E: Right, so I don’t think he’s Richie Rich exactly.
A: No, Richie Rich, in the comic, was “poor little rich boy.” He’s nice to his friends and whatever. He had all the money in the world, but that never satisfied him. He was never emotionally fulfilled. That’s the point of Richie Rich.
E: I think this kid is pretty satisfied in his life.
A: He’s got a mom who’s really affectionate and active in his life. His grandfather is somewhat of a mentor, but he still has to take care of his grandfather because he’s so old. His grandfather has diabetes, so it’s the kid, Thomas — it’s his responsibility to make sure he gets his insulin, and that comes into play later on.
A: His grandfather also has poor eyesight, which also comes into play at various points.
E: Yeah, their relationship is really great. His grandfather talks to him not as if he’s his grandkid, but as if he’s his friend. And a person. A friend and a person.
A: It’s the only way to talk to kids.
E: They have conversations that are…smart. They border on the philosophical, even. This kid is really obsessed with Santa Claus, and he wants to prove that Santa Claus exists so badly. He asks his grandpa, well, he says, “I wonder if Santa really exists” and then he starts talking about other historical figures, too, like Napoleon. And cavemen — like, how do we know they really existed? How do we know?
A: Well, we have historical record.
E: I mean, I know that. But how do we trust that? We don’t actually know because we didn’t experience it. That’s what Thomas is getting at.
A: So this kid is like the future of the Internet then. “I can’t trust Snopes! I can’t trust this or that source of information because they’re not me!” He’s an Internet conspiracy theorist in the making.
E: But he’s not being so “well, actually” about it.
A: That’s why I say “in the making.” This is the seed for that.
E: Well, his grandfather helps prevent that from happening. His grandpa is like, “Do you doubt the existence of human history?” and starts talking about finding remains of civilizations and cave drawings and skeletons, and stuff like that. And the kid’s like, “well okay, you’re right. Skeletons exist.” And then his grandpa asks if he believes in aliens.
A: “Do you believe in aliens?” “Yeah.” “Well, have you ever met an alien?”
E: Exactly. Santa might be an alien.
A: Which still leads me into “conspiracy theorist on the Internet.” Considering aliens, you know.
E: Speaking of Internet, there’s a technological thing in this movie.
A: It’s pre-Internet, it’s European. We’ve seen other movies — Until The End Of The World has something like it. It’s not quite the same, but that was also pre-Internet…and made up for that film. What was this called?
E: The Minitel. They have these little kiosks all over town that are kind of like stations where people can access this thing. It’s like a series of servers and whatnots, early message boards. Basically a chat system. But how they used it in France, like the reason there were little kiosks everywhere, was it was kind of like an ATM, or you could order stuff with them, or use it like a phone directory. Just useful stuff.
The kid is using it — and this is the title of the movie — as a way to contact Santa Claus. Like a live chat with Santa, to tell him how you’ve been good and what you want him to bring you. So he punches in code 3615, and that is Santa’s code. “Dial code, Santa Claus.”
A: He and his friend Pilou are using their home version of Minitel, to reach out to Santa. And there’s a kiosk that’s punched up, and it’s that creepy dude using it. I guess he just happens across it; they don’t really explain it, they just show them typing to each other anonymously. Pilou keeps telling Thomas to get off it, like “you’re probably just talking to a creepy guy.” But Thomas insists it’s the real Santa.
E: Another theme of this movie: keep your kids from chatting with strangers on the Internet, even back then when there wasn’t really an Internet.
A: Pilou is the total skeptic here.
E: Oh, he is! Here’s another nice and philosophical part about this: Pilou does not believe in Santa Claus. Pilou says Santa’s not real, and that his parents buy the presents. So basically, he thinks Tom’s an idiot for believing in Santa Claus. Tom brings that up to his mom, and his mom is like, “Well, Pilou’s a bad kid. Santa doesn’t come to see him.”
A: His parents have to make up for it and buy him stuff.
E: Exactly. Santa isn’t real to him. And that’s a pretty good way of handling that, I think. People don’t really know how to do that transition of, like, when their kids start hearing from their friends that Santa’s not real, and they kinda freak out. It’s a good way of handling it.
A: Did you ever believe in Santa? As a guy coming down the chimney, Santa?
E: Yeah, but we didn’t have a chimney. But I mean, yeah, I’m pretty sure I did.
A: I didn’t.
A: Never. Because it wasn’t presented as a belief in Santa, like as a thing to believe in. I understood the cultural icon, I knew what Santa was, but also the Europe thing. Growing up there, there were different versions of Santa Claus. There was the St. Nicholas, who, on December 5th, would come by your door late at night and drop off something. Either coal, or oranges…candy, stuff like that.
E: In your shoe?
A: In your boot! Yes, out by your door. You leave it out and he drops a little present off. Some of the Germanic cultures work in Krampus there, too. For some reason, my mom’s region never did the Krampus thing, so we didn’t do the Krampus thing. I didn’t even learn of Krampus until everybody else in America learned of Krampus. And that’s just weird, because I’m half German. I grew up in part over there. That’s just really strange to me. But the Santa stuff was presented as a historical thing. The European Santa Claus, St. Nicolas, in that sense. It wasn’t presented to me as “Jolly St. Nick” in the American way, it was just like, “yeah that’s a version,” but it’s not something to “believe in.” So I never fell for it. I never had my heart broken by it.
E: Ah, OK. So your European experience is completely different than the American consumerist Coca-Cola Santa Claus. I gotcha.
A: Yeah, and to the point, also Christmas markets. Which, at the time, being a kid, just being awestruck by wonderful lights and all that stuff. That’s what sparked my imagination and gave me big eyes, and of course I liked the smells of the baked breads, and the wassail, and gluhwein. But my memory of being there was just kinda like “and then…?” Because I’m a little kida and I’m antsy. I wanna do something more fun than stand around and look at stuff. But right now, boy do I wish we had these really great Christmas markets. Which now, have unfortunately been hit by terrorist activity and the military has presence there, so it’s completely not the same anymore.
E: Whoa, really?
A: Yeah, Christmas markets are set up in various ways in different countries: Spain, Germany, Italy, Holland…they all run similarly. But now they’re kind of bordered by military partitions and patrolmen. All because of horrible terrorist activity in the recent past. So it sucks they have to deal with that and have this looming, haunting negativity over this really beautiful thing. It was like an event, when you went to one of these things.
E: Do you think how it was portrayed in this movie is authentic?
A: In the beginning where they had the jugglers and stuff, and the clown — not so much the clown, I don’t remember seeing clowns — but I do remember seeing people dressed up in their Santa outfits and, like, winter wonderland type outfits.
E: I really prefer the European Santa look over the Coca-Cola Santa.
A: Yeah, it’s a lot nicer.
E: It’s really interesting. It’s much more, uh, folkloric.
A: I really liked how this movie at the beginning made me feel about this stuff, remembering it. It didn’t really show it so much, but it hinted at it, and got me really thinking about Christmas markets.
E: This movie is rare.
A: Very rare. I heard of it a few years ago. So probably I’m gonna say, I’m guessing, six to eight years ago I heard of it. But I never grabbed it, never went near it. Just because the rareness of it, it’s difficult to get your hands on. And I literally heard nothing about it, just heard of it. And then earlier this year I started seeing stuff about it, before all the hubbub. I was like, “Wait, Home Alone thing?” And then the hubbub happened. Which makes me think that there’s going to be a big push on blu-ray next year.
E: Probably. Now, you just said Home Alone. I wrote in my notes that this movie is “what Home Alone wished it was.”
A: I don’t know, maybe. But definitely, this movie satisfies us more than Home Alone ever could.
A: As a child — as a young man, because I wasn’t a child at the time, I was a teenager — I hated Home Alone. And I still hate Home Alone. I never once liked it, never got into any of the sequels. I saw the first movie once, and I loathed every second of it as I was going through it. This movie, I don’t loathe. At all. I like it. I have some criticism, constructive. That’s all got to do with editing. That’s it: tighten up the editing. That’s all. No other complaints.
E: What I think sets this apart from things like Home Alone, though, and even a lot of Christmas slashers, I’ll say — Christmas horror movies in general, really — they tend to treat their characters in a really awful way. They make them either incredibly unlikable so we’ll be fine when they die, or the movie is just, a lot of times, really mean to its characters. Just putting them in these really gruesome situations without any kind of remorse. The movie, as an entity of itself, has no remorse.
A: You don’t have any pathos towards those characters. That’s still, it’s kind of a point one and point two of the same point. The audience is a terrible person who wants to see these people die. That is the byproduct of the slasher movie in general. Maybe byproduct isn’t the right word. But when it comes to holiday slasher movies, we hate our families!
E: Yeah, it’s even worse! I mean, like, Home Alone, you hate the McCallisters. You hate them. You hate Kevin, too. Well, you and I do. But, they are awful, awful people. The family in this story couldn’t be further from that. They are the opposite, completely.
A: Well, they are wealthy, and the mom does have to work on Christmas Eve to keep the store afloat. But it’s not presented in a way that we hate her.
E: Right. We just know she’s doing what she has to do.
A: She’s not greedy. She’s not presented as greedy. She’s not some Gordon Gekko of the toy industry. She is just needing to do this, and she’ll be back. She was actually trying to leave early, and then the adventure starts, and she gets stuck. So it’s not like she’s neglecting her child, outright. Like, Home Alone, they’re neglecting their child.
E: And the frenzy, the frantic behavior, that Catherine O’Hara has in Home Alone, it’s like a lesson to her. She is trying to get back to Kevin because she fucked up. This lady, she’s trying to get back home because she’s calling to check on them and no one is answering. And they always answer. And you know, with her father’s health…the kid’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s a smart little kid. But he’s also a child. And he’s fantasy-prone.
A: He’s got flights of fancy, for sure. And they’re kinda worst case scenario of things that happen to him in his head. And the fun is him figuring that thing out. But at certain points, what I really, really like about this is that the kid isn’t “better” than the adults. He is good at what he can do. He’s really good! He works on cars! He fixes his mom’s car at one point. And that’s a really good bonding sequence with his grandfather as well. But he isn’t like Kevin McCallister who’s all “Yes!” and “I know what to do! And Rube Goldberg traps and I’m super smart!” No the kid here is smart, but he’s also like, “I can’t do this. I want my mom.” And that’s a very important thing about making him relatable and human. The best “kids in peril” movies are the ones where the kids are relatable and human.
E: There’s a lot of really horrible things that happen to Thomas during the course of this film. The introduction of his character is that he likes to play Rambo. He’s running around with his dog, and the dog is the enemy. He’s got all these sound effects set up so it’s like a war zone, and booby traps set up that are just like play traps for him and his dog, or whoever wants to play with him. But the play version ends up in some way becoming real, and he does end up getting injured in various ways. Muddied and bloodied.
A: The stuff that’s at the beginning, the war play, ends up becoming war reality. In his own house. And there’s a lot of emotional trauma, too. Being a little child, trying to make sure that your grandfather, who, one, is way heavier than you. And you have to move him, and make sure that he gets his insulin. The uphill battle, it’s like Sisyphus pushing the boulder for this little kid. He is out of his depth in a lot of ways. And that’s also really good because you want to see him usurp those obstacles.
E: Yup. One of the things I picked out that I really liked was the change from when he’s playing Rambo to when he’s really trying to survive. Like, the camerawork changes. Or at least, how the camera reveals things changes. When he’s playing Rambo, he climbs out his window and we think he’s super high up, trying to scoot across the window ledge like in an action movie, and it’s really tense and scary, but then the camera pulls back and it’s just that he’s on the balcony and he’s pretending. So it’s really funny and cute. And then it’s echoed later on when he’s really doing it on the side of the house! And it’s even more tense and scary.
Another thing I really like about this movie is the juxtaposition of really, really nice things, and really horribly scary or traumatic things. Thomas wants to believe in Santa Claus so badly, and Santa Claus is so magical to him, that he has set up a bunch of cameras around his house. Well, they’re set up anyway. But he is specifically setting up his system this night in order to try to capture Santa Claus.
A: He has a sort of like a Nintendo Power Glove — not quite, this is before that — but, like, a Power Glove sort of thing on his arm. Or, like, the Predator thing on his arm. It has a tiny television screen that can view each camera. So the kid’s really smart that he built this thing.
E: So he is hiding under a chair or sofa, or table, or whatever furniture it is, in front of the chimney, to wait to see if Santa comes down. And then Santa comes down and it’s very magical. The camera pushes in on Tom’s face, and he’s just in awe. Like he’s finally gotten validation of his beliefs. He’s amazed, and there’s twinkling music and soft lights, and it’s just nice. Christmas magic, you know? At that second, it’s the inspirational Christmas movie. Then, as he sees Santa — and he can only see his feet because he’s under this table or whatever — his dog attacks Santa because, I mean, he’s an intruder! The dog grabs on to his arm. And then…Santa fights back. So Tom’s illusion of Santa Claus gets very broken at that moment, and this is when the movie completely turns. You get little glimpses of “this is gonna be a little creepier than you might think” beforehand, but this is where the big change happens.
A: But why would Santa attack him anyway? Or be there in the first place? It is the man from earlier at that kiosk, the same unhinged guy. And, it’s a little too much to talk about right now, but there is a reason for him to have picked that house to go into. That has to do with being a hired Santa, and then a fired Santa, and the toy store. It has to do with that, in an almost vengeance kind of thing. But also, he doesn’t seem like he has much of a plan. Like, he wasn’t out to get anyone before that Minitel conversation. This is all some kind of strange happenstance maybe.
But the kid doesn’t have any of that in sight and his worldview is shattered. It’s a loss of innocence right there. It’s not just a loss of innocence, in a traditional sense. It’s been taken from him, and it seems too early for that to happen to him.
E: And maybe that’s what Willa is getting at, the different perspective, or different narrative of what we normally think of Santa Claus.
A: Yeah, maybe. There’s a movie called Saint Nick by Dick Maas, he’s a Dutch director that makes horror movies primarily. It’s about the one version of St. Nicolas that I’m familiar with, and that’s the kind of churchy, Catholic-robed looking St. Nicolas, and he’s murdering people all over Amsterdam. Like he’s the spirit of vengeance and murder. So that’s like a monster St. Nick, also not quite like the Nordic Rare Exports, which is a giant Nordic version of St. Nick, a monster ogre thing…this is a bit different. Santa villains — remember Santa’s Slay? Which had promise but then squandered it the rest of the film. It’s like that, except those are actual “the origins of,” when this is just an unhinged guy. Now, what is crazier to you, unhinged guy or “origins of”?
E: Before seeing this movie, I would’ve said “origins of,” just because I think folklore is more interesting just like a killer Santa…a guy dressed up in a Santa suit…like, I’m sorry, I know a lot of people love Christmas Evil, but I don’t. I don’t think it’s that interesting, except the very, very final scene is just weird. Like, I don’t really get that Repo Man ending. But anyway, this movie, though, makes me more interested in the “unhinged guy” killer Santa.
A: Is it that they don’t show as much about him?
E: Yeah, I think so. There’s more mystery to him. And less motivation. And there are other characters to put your faith in.
A: You get enough information that he’s a creep, and he’s a creep who’s been slighted. So he justifies his actions. And that’s all you need to know, as far as like, for the film. But then, let’s just say this wasn’t a film. You’d see news reports after the fact, and then would be like, “Who is this guy?! What was his thing?” and you’d want to dissect his brain.
E: Yeah, sure. I think that’s what makes this movie successful, and keeps my interest throughout. So I would say this is going to be one of my new favorite Christmas movies. You know I don’t like to watch the same things year after year, but this is a good one to add to your rotation. And maybe it will be on blu-ray in America next year.
A: Yeah, it is on blu-ray in Europe. I’m hoping like Arrow or Vinegar or Shout will — Shout’s not gonna pick it up, though. I think it’s going to be one of the others. It’s not American enough for Shout. Hey, Kino could do it. They put out Making Contact, which is a crazy German kids’ film. Also, this has a similar cinematography to that. It has a kind of look to it, and it feels like 1989. And it looks like “cinema.” It has lots of dutch angles. Like this is “Dutch Angle: The Christmas Movie.” But the dutch angles lend to its unease, as opposed to wackiness. Like, Batman the TV series with Adam West was all wacky dutch angles. But this is not so wacky, it’s more…it sets up a sort of frivolity. A bit of fun, especially at the beginning, when the kid is doing the Rambo stuff. The dutch angle work there is fun. But when it shows up in the rest of the movie — which is a lot — it shows up in the scary tense moments, it’s there to stagger you. To put you off ease, and it works.
E: So, final verdict, Andrew?
A: I like this movie. I just wish it was tighter edited is all.
E: Ha! Fine. Agreed.