Monday, December 25, 2023

Keep the Deadly Games, You Filthy Animal

Over the last decade or so, there have been more than enough articles and video essays on how Home Alone can be interpreted as an extreme horror movie. Whether you see it as a John Jigsaw Kramer origin story or nightmare about adults abandoning children, it has some pretty notable darkness lurking just under the crowd-pleasing exterior. There's a reason it inspired the excellent and twisted pure horror flick Better Watch Out some twenty years after its blockbuster debut.

And yet, just one year before Macaulay Culkin became a household name and millions of kids broke limbs trying to sled down their own stairway, there was an even darker Christmas story about an intrepid little boy enlisting his own gaming skills to protect his mini-mansion from an invader. Long known in the genre film community, Rene Manzor's Deadly Games was one of those hard-to-find legends that now finally has a streaming home on Shudder. In honor of the season, let's roll the getting ready montage and have at it.

Quick Plot: Thomas Fremont lives a charmed life with his wealthy business owner mother, ailing grandfather, and loyal dog (don't get attached). A computer genius who still believes in Santa Claus, Thomas fires up his Minitel to summon the big guy, only to actually engage in dialogue with a psychotic vagrant. Later that day, that same nameless man gets a quick job as a mall Santa, only to be fired for lashing out at a child in front of Tommy's mom.

Bad Santa doesn't take this lightly. When he overhears the Fremonts' address, he makes his way there with blood on his mind. Once Thomas figures out that the white bearded man outside isn't there to give him gifts, he springs into full booby trap-setting action.

That's all you really need to know about Deadly Games, aka Dial Code Santa Claus. Manzor nails a very tricky level of horror that puts our child hero in full harm's way but also gives him plenty to fist pump about. Thomas may be a bit of a spoiled prodigy, but he's also, at the end of the day (in this case, Christmas Eve), just a child. Manzor makes the danger real but never quite mean, which keeps the tone in balance and the energy just right.

I don't know that I'll put Deadly Games on the same seasonal rotation as my beloved Christmas Evil or any Silent Night, Deadly Night (though this is a far superior film to anything in that franchise) but I can fully understand this being a holiday tradition for a lot of genre fans. It's a weird little combination of sweet and naughty, as Christmas should be.

High Points
As Thomas, Alain Lalanne is so perfect at channeling the full gamut of emotions in a kid his age. Bratty, cute, playful, smart, and most importantly, just a little boy who needs his mother

Low Points
It's needed to spur Thomas into action, but by golly, I could have done without the beaten to death dog

Lessons Learned

Once you start doubting Santa Claus, the history of man is next

Nothing moves a plot faster than a need for insulin

Life-sized knight statues are the original panic rooms

I had a good seasonable time with Deadly Games, and will likely add it to the loose list of Christmas-set films that I cycle through every few years. Any genre fan (or Home Alone enthusiast) has no reason not to give it a go. Papa Noel orders it. 

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