Dial Code: Santa Claus is our new favorite holiday cult classic

One year before young Macauley Culkin gleefully terrorized would-be burglars in the 1990 Christmas classic , a Rambo-obsessed little boy named Thomas battled a murderous intruder in the 1989 French film . It’s dark and violent, like all the best fairy tales, and deserves a place in the growing pantheon of alternative holiday movies for those who prefer more of an edge to their Christmas fare.

(Mild spoilers below.)

Ten-year-old Thomas comes from a long line of toy manufacturers, so naturally he has all the latest toys and gadgets to play with, plus an adorable dog named J.R. His house is an imaginative kid’s dream: a large isolated manor with tons of secret rooms and passageways that his father showed him before he died. Thomas himself (sporting a rad ’80s mullet) is a bit of a genius, good with computers and cobbling together elaborate contraptions out of toys and electronic parts.

Thomas finds himself home alone with his nearly-blind grandfather on Christmas eve, because his mother, as CEO of the family toy empire, is working late to rake in all those holiday profits. He’s set up an elaborate camera system to capture Santa Claus in the act of leaving presents. When “Santa” really does come down the chimney just after midnight, the boy thinks his dream has come true. But J.R. attacks the intruder, and “Santa” responds by brutally killing the dog with a cake knife. Thomas must use all his wits to protect himself and his grandfather from “Santa.”

Ultimately the film is about the loss of childhood innocence.

The film was highly influential with European filmmakers at the time, in large part because director Rene Manzor turned the holy day of Christmas into a violent nightmare scenario, violating a cultural taboo. Unlike , doesn’t play the situation for laughs. It’s genuinely traumatic for Thomas: he’s in real peril, and this Bad Santa racks up quite a body count before his rampage ends.

Ultimately, the film is about the loss of childhood innocence. Thomas’ mother wants her son to have one more year of believing in Santa Claus, a way of keeping him innocent just a bit longer. She even tries to prevent him from attempting to catch sight of Santa on Christmas Eve by warning that, if he does, Santa will get mad and turn into an ogre. From Thomas’ perspective, that’s precisely what happens.

The film’s original French title, , refers to an early form of the Internet in France called the Minitel (other translations include and ). There were mini-terminals dotted around French city streets where people could pay by the minute to log in to chat, send messages, read the news, or shop. The most common access code for the terminal was “3615.” (The Minitel shut down for good in 2012. You can learn more in this article in , about how the original builder, Daniel Hannaby, has uploaded the original source code to the cloud.)

The Minitel plays a key role in . Thomas has a brief chat session with Santa via the Minitel, inviting him to come to his house that night. Little does he know that his jaded best buddy, Pilou, is right: that’s not really Santa on the other end. It’s a mentally unstable vagabond who seems a bit too fond of children, while being quite childlike himself.

The similarities between the two films may well just be a coincidence.

So, is just a US knockoff, sanitized for American tastes? The jury is still out on that score. Manzor definitely noticed the similarities between the two films and threatened to sue. John Hughes, writer and producer of , denied the charge, claiming he never saw Manzor’s film and came up with the idea while traveling to Paris for a family vacation.

was distributed everywhere except North America when it was broadly released in January 1990. The similarities may well just be a coincidence, since  first hit theaters on November 16 that same year. It seems unlikely the film could have been written, cast, shot, and edited in that short a time frame.

 stands the test of time. Previously available only on bootleg VHS, the American Genre Film Archives restored the film and screened it at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. And they’re screening it at select theaters all over the country through January 19 (you can find a list of screenings here), with a Blu-Ray for the US region supposedly coming soon. Snap up a copy when it does, and add it to your annual holiday viewing.

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