2 out of 5
Directed by: René Manzor
Conceptually awesome, and committed as all heck, René Manzor’s Dial Code Santa Claus (aka Deadly Games and, like, ten other titles) is so frustratingly paced as to muddle its potential to the point of boredom. I suspect that it’s the kind of film one would warm to over multiple views, more appreciating its flaws than, y’know, seeing them as flaws, but a first time viewing – at least in my case – is rife with immersion-breaking moments that completely halt the film, causing an unnecessary sense of repetition, form-over-function amateurishness, and an overall momentum-less vibe.
Alain Lalanne is Thomas, spoiled child genius (and video game programmer, maybe?), living in a single mom-run mansion and given access to plenty of toys provided by said mom – managing a French department store, Printemps, and played by Brigitte Fossey – which Thomas uses in his elaborate games constructed into the mansion. “Constructed into”: Thomas suits up as Rambo, perhaps every morning, and chases his dog around the house, which has secret passages and trap doors and that the kid has child-geniused with various machinations and cameras that he controls from an electronic wrist device.
If this doesn’t seem terribly realistic, well, yes: the movie, at this point, exists somewhere between fantasy and comedy, but it’s also entirely sincere. The opening sequence that has Thomas lifting weight and putting on his Rambo duds is handled with the same kind of gravitas as the source flick(s) it lifts from, and without the kind of cues (quirky music, comedic beats) that would tell us that it’s parody. This oddity is definitely endearing, especially in the kinds of ways that makes for great cult films, but it also makes it hard to tell who the film is for: it centers on a kid, but it doesn’t feel especially kid-friendly. And we also start getting introduced, early on, to a problematic habit of Manzor’s: storytelling by necessity. A typical ‘spoiled child genius’ setup would eventually involve said kid learning some life lessons about his spoiled nature, but this character attribute only exists so that Thomas can have the know-how for stuff later in the film; similarly, mom being a workhorse and causing waves by dating a new beau should be an arc, but these details are only there to arrange for Thomas to be alone on Christmas, and so that the mother has a confidant she can call; grandpa has fuzzy vision for a similar exactly-for-this-plot-point reasons. While including such elements is, on one hand, just part of constructing a story, Manzor has no sense of subtlety about it, and so it gives these elements a sense of trajectory which then isn’t supported by the remaining movie.
But we don’t know that yet. We continue in the kind of weird, dreamy fuzzy tone of the flick – odd, but enjoyable – while a mentally disturbed man (who’s been in contact with Thomas over a formative version of the internet – Minitel) makes his way toward the mansion. His childlike representation by Patrick Floersheim still allows this to function as potential comedy, until some darker elements of his personality intercede. And when he finally drops into the mansion – literally, as he’s dressed like Santa and comes in through the chimney – the flick hits its masterstroke of turning into horror, dropping any pretense in a very brutal fashion.
I’m with the movie up until this point.
But hereafter, the movie’s quirks become problems. Dial Code Santa Claus is pitched as something of an R-rated Home Alone, because Thomas then goes about escaping from this man in his locked-down mansion via the various traps he’s previously built, and that’s a fair comparison, except there’s no cleverness or buildup into that. This path is rather obvious; it’s not like Home Alone, where prankish behavior gives way to invention, rather, Manzor has front-loaded us with child genius setup and showing the traps, so we have nowhere to go, with an hour remaining, except to craaawwwwl through cat-and-mouse stuff, with every incident interrupted by an extended shot of Thomas recommitting himself to his goals. This latter bit is the film doubling down on its sincerity, and why I want to love it – it ends up treating this not as fantasy and comedy but as a realistic take on trauma, given a fantastic setup – just the inbetween stuff is so poorly paced that it ruins and tension, and any drama. Information that should be shown for effect is skipped over and then tossed into the background; information that’s been pre-established gets 5-minute sequences to re-establish it. “Montages” are actually one scene, shot at length, and for little payoff, e.g. a sequence that shows Thomas setting up a trap is all actually very linear, piece-by-piece construction for one trap, that then has like a 2-second subsequent shot of being triggered – this is sincerity backfiring, and, like, not applying general film editing techniques because you want to make sure we take something seriously.
There’s also a runaround with the “why” of the killer that I probably found more distracting than I was supposed to. This was, I think, another part of Manzour wanting to buck expectations a bit, but it’s in line with the over-obviousness I mentioned above – he pushes so hard on something that, when it doesn’t amount to anything, it just feels like wasted time. I’d again suggest that that kind of stuff works better on repeat views, but on the initial pass. it’s disruptive.
Definitely an interesting movie, and one I wouldn’t be against watching again, especially with commentary. However, it’s a good idea with poor execution, and poor enough to overwhelm the positives.