3615 code Père Noël (1989)

Occasionally, I have the rare privilege of watching a movie that not only widens my appreciation for the scope of the grander Christmas canon, but potentially explains lingering questions about existing holiday classics. Not only is this one of those movies, it is an absolutely fantastic film in its own right, a horror/action/comedy/adventure in the vein of Rare Exports and Krampus made decades before either of those films. But for the purposes of history, it's more significant that it was made one year after Die Hard and two years before Home Alone.

A lot of people have joked about similarities between those films - I've done so myself. But deep down, I always assumed those similarities were ultimately due to similar holiday tropes being used in initially divergent ways that became similar due to the movies' premises. Convergent cinematic yuletide evolution, if you will.

After watching 3615 code Père Noël, however, I'm less certain. This 1989 French masterpiece (so, yes, this is a recommendation) directly references American action movies, including Die Hard, Aliens, and most directly the Rambo movies (the lead character spends the majority of the film dressed as Rambo). And while I'm not aware of any conclusive proof the producers of Home Alone watched 3615 code Père Noël, the similarities are impossible not to see. According to Wikipedia, the makers of 3615 code Père Noël have accused Home Alone of plagiarism, and at the very least there's a strong case to be made.

In other words, this is quite possibly the missing link between Die Hard and Home Alone.

Before I go on, I need to take a minute and address the title of this movie, because tracking this down in the US is needlessly complicated. While 3615 code Père Noël is the actual title in France, its title overseas has been inconsistent. I found this streaming on Shudder under the name Deadly Games, but apparently it's also been released as Dial Code Santa Claus, Game Over, and Hide and Freak.

The movie is primarily built around two characters: Thomas, a brilliant but eccentric ten-year-old boy who lives in a mansion and builds traps for fun, and an unnamed murderer dressed as Santa Claus. If you think you can already imagine this movie, you're half right and half wrong.

You're right in that it's a killer Santa versus a kid weaponizing his home. But you'd probably be wrong about the tone and style. First, this movie is beautiful, with a dreamlike look that at times feels almost like a blend of Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton. The lighting is strange and magical, favoring blue hues evocative of moonlit snow. This film is a fairy tale, complete with a storybook castle and monster. The boy never realizes it isn't the real Santa he's fighting, a detail that makes everything all the more mythic, as we experience the story largely from his point-of-view.

The movie isn't all that bloody or violent - by American standards, you'd barely scratch the surface of PG these days - but psychologically... it's pretty brutal. The main character goes through a lot, both physically and mentally, as the movie progresses, and while he survives (as do all the human members of his family), the ending implies the event will leave him traumatized for life.

That "human members of his family" aside is probably telling, right? He's got a dog Santa kills early on, and eventually he goes John Wick on Papa Noel. This is where the movie lays out the blueprint for Home Alone, with a series of traps, secret passages, and toys turned into weapons.

Unlike Home Alone, Thomas actually has a compelling reason to fight rather than run: his elderly, disabled grandfather is with him and has no chance of surviving the night without Thomas. The movie is essentially an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with Thomas trying to strategize a way to avoid the killer, keep his grandfather alive, and send for help.

His mother also plays a key role. Like Kate McCallister, she spends most of the movie desperately trying to get back to her child. The fact this all takes place over Christmas Eve makes it more believable she's unable to convince the police to take the matter seriously.

In the interest of being complete, not everything works. There's a side plot about an online network Thomas initially uses to communicate with Santa that kind of feels tacked on (this is where the original title comes from, by the way). To be fair, I think this was originally thematically relevant, as the movie may simultaneously be trying to offer some advice to not grow up too fast and parallel that with the rising access of information... but I don't feel like that translates all that well. It wound up feeling tacked on and unaddressed, but it's a minor issue: it really only takes up a few minutes of screen time.

The other thing worth mentioning concerns the antagonist. While his situation is never explained, it's hard to look at his behavior without concluding he's supposed to be mentally ill, rather than evil. While it's somewhat refreshing to see a villain motivated by something other than cruelty, this portrayal of mental illness as inherently dangerous is of course deeply problematic. Most of the movie aged well, but this aspect did not.

This movie is astonishingly weird and surreal. If you can stomach something a bit dark, this is an amazing film. At the start, I compared this to both Krampus and Rare Exports, which is great company to be in. But I'll raise the bar a bit higher: this is easily my favorite of the three, and it's not even close.

Obviously, this isn't a movie for young kids, but as a strange, unnerving, but gorgeous holiday horror/adventure, it's absolutely incredible. And on top of everything else, it may be an immensely significant entry in the holiday canon, the kid-centered version of Die Hard that (allegedly) inspired Home Alone.

I really can't stress this enough. It's absolutely amazing to me this movie exists, and I find it utterly baffling it's not better known.