This article contains some spoilers
Late on Christmas Eve, a precocious young boy dashes away from the strange man who has entered his home. His mother miles away, the boy must stop the invader himself, deploying an arsenal of traps and gadgets. But just when he thinks he has a chance to escape, the invader suddenly returns. The camera swirls chaotically around the invader as he batters the boy’s hiding spot with a sledgehammer while discordant metal music squeals on the soundtrack.
No, I’m not describing a deleted scene from Home Alone. This is a scene from that movie’s predecessor, 3615 code Père Noël aka Deadly Games aka Dial Code Santa Claus. Released in France in 1989, just one year before Home Alone hit American theaters, Deadly Games has a strikingly similar premise to the Macaulay Culkin hit. Alain Lalanne stars as Thomas, a single mother’s son whose only tether to childhood is his steadfast belief in Santa Claus. Otherwise, Thomas copes with his absent father with a steady diet of American action movies, stylizing himself as a spikey-haired and mulleted little Rambo.
When his mother (Brigette Fossey) fires a disturbed man (Patrick Floersheim) for slapping a child at the luxurious toy store she operates, Thomas must defend his frail grandfather (Louis Decreaux) against the madman, who has taken up a Santa disguise and come for revenge. With his wits, gadgets, and Rambo cosplay, Thomas goes to war with the one sliver of hope he had left: Father Christmas.
As corny as that description sounds, Deadly Games is somehow crazier and more realistic than its famous American cousin. Where Home Alone combines Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? bickering with Looney Tunes carnage and wraps it up with a schmaltzy ending, Deadly Games plays its premise relatively straight. As a result, its violence is more shocking, its stakes much higher, and its emotion is better earned.
The key difference between the two movies can be found in the thing that seems to tie them together: their young protagonists. Like Kevin McCallister, Thomas’s extreme privilege belies familial turmoil. The grandson of a wildly successful toy store founder, Thomas seems to embody every kid’s dream, living in a giant mansion with all the toys in the world. This largesse allows him to indulge in his daydreams, which tend to draw from American movies. We first meet Thomas snoozing in the cockpit of a full-size World War II fighter plane, fantasizing about dogfights and daring escapes.
Leaving aside the lavish wealth on display, one might wonder why this kid gets to spend so much time playing war. Surely, his mother realizes he’s growing up to be a psycho? But when we see Thomas and his mother together, we realize that she’s doing the best she can. We first meet her interrupting Thomas’s dogfighting dreams to call him to breakfast. But rather than scold her son, she plays along, asking him to “free the dog” before coming to eat.
This level of care sets Thomas apart from Kevin. Sure, Kevin’s mom does leave France right away when she realizes that she’s left him at home. And her trip back to Chicago forces her to face down that most dangerous of Midwestern menaces, a polka band. But her tearful reunion with Kevin lasts only a few minutes, a pittance compared to the first act, in which the McCallisters dump on Kevin simply because they can.
For Thomas, an addiction to violence is all fantasy, a way to escape from his difficult life. Director René Manzor showcases that approach in an early scene that recreates a “suiting-up” montage from Rambo: First Blood Part II. Close-ups follow Thomas’s little bicep-less arms as he sharpens a bowie knife and strap bandoliers of nerf-bullets across his tiny chest. As fierce as Thomas wants to be, with a sneer peeking out from under the red headband he wraps around his chest, he’s just a kid playing dress up and the movie never lets us forget it.
You would think that an action movie-loving kid would love nothing more than to have someone break into his house full of trinkets. But when Thomas first sees the man, he responds not as a PTSD-stricken Sylvester Stallone character, but as a little kid: he thrills at the fact that Santa is real and hides not to spoil the surprise. But when the man kicks and then kills Thomas’s dog, Thomas doesn’t swear revenge: he huddles in shock, because he’s a child.
Deadly Games is at its best when it’s taking advantage of this combination of violence and innocence. Shortly after his first encounter with the attacker, Thomas escapes to the roof of the house. Clinging to the snow-covered baffles, his exposed arms shivering in the cold, Thomas bawls for his mother while the camera swirls around the exterior to underscore just how alone he is.
Later, an audacious montage shows Thomas gearing up for the final conflict, bandaging the gash on his leg and filling a toy grenade with gunpowder, while a cheesy ballad plays. “Happy birthday, Jesus,” belts out a raspy English-speaking singer, extolling the virtues of peace on Earth and goodwill toward man as Thomas loads up for murder. To be sure, the scene deserves every snicker it receives. But there’s also something honest about the juxtaposition. While the song yearns for the promise of Christmas putting an end to war and selfishness, we see just how far off our world has become, to the point that a little boy has to prepare to kill the one magical thing he still believed in.
With this juxtaposition in play, Deadly Games can be all the more graphic in its violence. We see a grieving Thomas bury his dead dog in the backyard, limping as he carries him after getting slashed in the leg by Father Christmas. Throughout the movie, Father Christmas sustains numerous injuries that cannot be dismissed as carton violence.
The Cure for a Corny Christmas
Deadly Games won’t ever take the place of Home Alone on most holiday watch lists. It’s hard to imagine the family gathering around to watch Thomas’s last innocent belief summon a murderous psycho. But for those who grew up on the Chris Columbus favorite, Deadly Games offers something deeper, more moving, and, yes, more ridiculous. And isn’t that what Christmas is really about?