A popular holiday staple for many families is John Hughs’s Christmas comedy Home Alone, where a young boy must defend his home from intruders, but while that film has become a holiday classic and is beloved by many, it was not the first film with that premise because a year earlier writer/director René Manzor brought to the world a movie with much the same idea, only a whole lot darker.
Also known as Game Over, Dial Code Santa Clause, and Hide and Freak this French Christmas horror film brought the premise of your typical Disney flick and then wrapped it up in the trappings of a Rambo movie and then wonderfully disguised it as a Christmas present. It should be pointed out that the surroundings of Deadly Games are vastly more interesting than the plot – a young boy fighting of crazed vagrant – and that’s not to say there is anything wrong with that simple premise but it’s the world of this movie, dynamically created by René Manzor, that is the true selling point. The film’s protagonist is Thomas de Frémont (Alain Lalanne), a child prodigy obsessed with action films and gaming, who lives in a secluded and high-tech castle with his widowed mother Julie (Brigette Fossey) and his near-blind and diabetic grandfather (Louis Ducreux), but when his doubts surrounding the existence of Santa Clause unknowingly results in him making contact with a local vagrant (Patrick Floersheim) through an online videotex service, this vagrant who then poses as a department store Santa to learn the location of Thomas’s home.
What follows is a series of nightmarish events that start with the psychotic vagrant arriving at the Frémont estate, having smuggled himself inside a delivery truck and then murdering the driver, he then proceeds to kill the groundskeeper and the family chef, and right there we have a higher body count than your average Christmas family film, but things really get going when he enters the house via the chimney as any respectable Santa Claus would, and brutally stabs Thomas’s dog right before the child’s horrified eyes, and it is here where the movie quickly shifts into what becomes a deadly game of cat and mouse between Thomas and “Santa” as the kid must use his home’s security system and booby traps, all constructed by him, as well as an arsenal of makeshift weaponry, to defend his enfeebled grandfather until help can arrive.
While a kid using booby traps and the like to thwart an intruder may seem similar to that of John Hughes/Chris Columbus Christmas outing this film is tonally very different, with the vagrant being a crazed individual with no financial motivation – he’s no Wet Bandit, he’s a cold-blooded psychopath – and Thomas is no wise-cracking Kevin McCallister as he is clearly in fear for his life and that of his grandfather, with him in literal tears as he tries to outmaneuver and out think the killer, but while the danger is certainly more apparent in this film, as compared to Home Alone, it’s also not really comparable to other such Christmas horror-themed movies like Black Christmas because while there is blood and violence on screen it’s of a more PG-13 variety, rather than what you’d find in something like Jack Frost. What makes this film really stand out is the wonderful art direction by Eric Moulard, which makes up the battleground between Thomas and the vagrant, a massive mansion littered with secret passageways, mazes and hidden rooms, and Moulard should get all the kudos in the world for bringing René Manzor’s bizarre tale to life as it almost strides the line between horror and fantasy.
• This kid loves playing war games with his dog and even has trigger-activated trapdoors with a net below, which does come in handy when a killer Santa is in the mix, but is adding a trapdoor into a hallway even structurally sound?
• Julie de Frémont is a loving mother who wants her child to keep believing in Santa Claus for a little while longer, which is nice, but as a business owner, she is more akin to Scrooge as her demands are a bit extreme for a company that sells toys, stating to her staff “I called this meeting because as you know, it is Christmas eve, and we will pull an all-nighter” which is a bit insane as you’d assume most parents would have purchased their kid’s toys by now.
• Thomas’s mother tells him, “You know, you mustn’t try and see Santa or he’ll get mad and turn into an ogre” and while I’m not familiar with every myth surrounding Santa Claus this aspect sounds more like Krampus than it does Kris Kringle.
• Julie’s private home phone is located in a barren attic room that is reached by traversing a bizarre maze, and I’m now starting to really question the sanity of this family.
• The killer eventually captures Thomas but then lets him go, stating “I win. You lose. Now… I’ll go hide myself, and you’ll be it. Okay?” and this is something that adds to the overall madness and fear to the story, an element that many horror films lack.
The brilliant art direction and René Manzor’s wonderfully bizarre script wouldn’t have mattered a tinker’s damn if not for the powerful performance by Alain Lalanne as a young boy fighting for his life and that of his grandfather, and it’s his portrayal of a terrified but courageous kid that is the true heart of this film, and when he finally buckles down to fight during the second act, offering the threat “Even if you are Santa, I’m going to scare you to death” you can’t help but fall in love with this little hero. This is made more realistic by showing him having actual qualms about hurting his attack – he balks at running him over with the car and has trouble pulling the trigger when he gets a hold of the murdered cop’s gun – and when he is finally reunited with his mom it’s a more exhausted and emotionally devastating ending that what you’d typically expect to find.
René Manzor’s Deadly Games is a truly strange holiday outing, one that turns the conventions of both Christmas movies and horror flicks on their collective heads to bring us a brilliant take on the “Clever Kid vs Adult” genre that not only has a hyper-stylized setting but a young protagonist who is portrayed in a very real and honest way, physically and emotionally – not many films of this type will have a kid dress his own wounds and then build himself a makeshift splint/crutch – and while this movie will be oft compared to Home Alone one shouldn’t forget that it was first and is also very different and a whole lot darker.
Deadly Games (1989)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
This is a fiendishly clever Christmas horror flick that is smart, funny, and surprisingly dark for what at the outset looks to be a Christmas comedy to only go right off the rails into a psychotic nightmare of the hunter and the hunted. Also, shout out to Alain Lalanne’s magnificent mullet as it should have got a billing all on its own.