Monday, December 23, 2019

“A Message Board for Weirdos” - Dial Code Santa Claus (1990) - Film #166

In the holiday season, the film lover's thoughts turn to holiday classics. Last year, Senseless Cinema looked at the British classic Don't Open Till Christmas (1984). This year, we consider Rene Manzon's Dial Code Santa Claus (1990).

In a turn of events that might be considered a holiday miracle, even your universe's critics love Dial Code Santa Claus. As I am unable to find any negative reviews of this classic, read on to see why the film is so beloved...

In a symbolically prophetic opening shot, the filmmakers show a delicate snow globe with the Eiffel Tower inside—a snow globe that is destroyed seconds later when a garbage truck plows over it, driving past a sign for a number (36-15) to call Santa Claus. Nearby, children have a merry snowball fight that is interrupted by a bearded man. When he wants to play, all the children run away, leaving him with a disappointed expression.

Meanwhile, the protagonist of the film, a mulleted 10-year-old boy named Thomas, wakes up from a nap in his bed, which is a real WWII-era fighter plane, and pretends he is Rambo, complete with black facepaint and plastic knives and machine guns.

Thomas runs through his mansion (which is roughly the size of a small country), chasing his dog J.R., whom he eventually subdues by opening a trapdoor in the floor via remote control, dropping the poor dog into a net. He also wakes up his elderly grandfather using a PA system, then threatens to shoot the old man with his toy gun, not to mention handcuffing him to bring him to breakfast with his wealthy mother, who owns a company called Toy Center.

“Mom, Pilou says Santa doesn’t exist,” Thomas tells his mother and grandfather.

“He’s raving mad,” replies the grandfather.

Thomas says he doesn’t need to write a letter to Santa anymore because he can use Minitel, a computer network, but he hands his mother a letter for Santa so she can mail it.

Thomas’s mother goes to work with her assistant, with whom she is having an affair, and to whom she explains about Thomas, “Despite his high IQ, he believes in Santa, fairies, goblins, the works. That’s what’s so nice about him. He’s like all other kids.”

Back at his mansion, Thomas logs onto his computer to connect with Santa Claus. He tries to convince his friend Pilou that he is really talking to Santa Claus. Pilou tells him to type, “Is it true you got midgets working for you, like in stories?”

Santa types back, “No.”

Thomas simultaneously gets connected to another message board. A question appears onscreen: “Do you want to play?”

Pilou warns Thomas, “It could be a kinky message board. A message board for weirdos.”

“Give me your address” appears on the screen.

The scene shifts from Thomas’s room to a street in a busy shopping district, where the bearded man who broke up the snowball fight is typing messages to Thomas from a Minitel kiosk, apparently pretending to be Santa Claus.

After using his computer to contact adults pretending to be Santa Claus, Thomas repairs his mother’s old Ford car and drives his grandfather around the mansion, after which Thomas programs a bank of computers to control cameras all over the house in order to catch video evidence of Santa when he arrives. “And maybe I can even capture him!” he tells his dog, strapping on a wrist device that controls the cameras and shows video.

Meanwhile, the bearded man dresses as Santa at the shopping district, where he chats with teenagers for some reason amid a blizzard of soap suds standing in for snowflakes. When a little girl proves he is not the real Santa by pulling down his false white beard to reveal his real brown beard, the man slaps the little girl, causing his boss to fire him. This leads to a tense scene in the Human Resources office, which coincidentally allows the brown-bearded Santa to overhear a conversation about a delivery of Christmas gifts Thomas’s mother is making to Thomas’s house. Realizing Thomas is the child he was talking to over Minitel on the dial Santa Claus line, our bearded villain decides to visit Thomas’s mansion.

At the mansion, while playing Dungeons and Dragons, Thomas and his grandfather have the conversation that is familiar to all parents the world over. Thomas says, “You know, Grandpa, I wonder whether Santa Claus really exists.” Like most children would, he adds, “And Napoleon and cavemen and all that.”

“So you doubt not only Santa Claus but the whole history of mankind?”

“There’s no evidence.”

“But there is. Take the cavemen, for example. There are cave drawings. Even skeletons.”

With admirable accuracy, Thomas responds, “But Santa…his skeleton was never found.”

His grandfather disproves Thomas’s argument that things Thomas hasn’t seen might not be real by asking if he believes in aliens, which of course he does, though he has never seen them. Thomas’s doubt dissipates, and Thomas asks the reasonable, though in this case rhetorical, question, “Could Santa Claus be an alien?”

A delivery van arrives at the mansion, and the unwitting driver is killed by our bearded villain, who has been hiding in the back of the van.

The brown-bearded Santa rings the doorbell to make the delivery, and the servants let him inside the house. Once inside, he picks up a bottle of tree-flocking spray to turn his hair and beard white. The filmmakers decide to let this shot play out in real time, so we see how long it takes to turn all his hair white. Then Santa sits in a rocking chair by the Christmas tree, staring into the distance, waiting for midnight.

In perhaps the quintessential scene of the film, Thomas watches from underneath a table as the end of a rope falls down into the fireplace, and then Santa climbs down with his wicker basket full of gifts, surrounded by a mystical glow. Thomas’s face is filled with wonder.

The dog, J. R., enters the room and starts to attack Santa, whereupon Santa starts kicking the dog, then grabs a cake-serving utensil from the table and stabs the dog, much to Thomas’s disappointment.

Santa then chases Thomas through the mansion to his grandfather’s room, though his grandfather believes he is only playing one of his games. Thomas leads his grandfather into Thomas’s room, where they climb into a wardrobe, only to reveal Thomas’s secret headquarters behind it, a massive toy-filled room that puts the batcave to shame. Thomas eventually leads his grandfather to the garage, trying to get away in the Ford, but the car won’t start. Santa appears in front of the garage and threatens the two of them in the car, then uses a sledgehammer to smash the lights and windows. During this intense sequence, blood appears on Santa’s face, presumably from poor J. R.

Thomas and his grandfather escape because Santa appears more interested in damaging the car than hurting them. They hide in Thomas’s batcave, where he explains the presence of mountains of toys: “All my dad’s toys are here, and his dad’s. And all his ancestors.’ And all of mine, one day.”

They hatch a plan to get to the phone in Thomas’s mother’s office. “Nothing can happen to me,” Thomas says, asking to go find the phone. “I have my armband monitor.”

Seeing that Santa is on the staircase, Thomas runs out of the batcave, but not before dressing like Rambo again, complete with facepaint. Showing what might be considered poor judgement, Thomas hits a button on his armband monitor and metal security shutters slide down over the ground-level doors and windows, trapping him and his grandfather (and perhaps the servants) in the house with the murderous Santa. Fortunately, Thomas also has the ingenuity to activate the trapdoor he used to catch his dog earlier, which sends Santa into the net, though he appears in Thomas’s mother’s office minutes later.

In one of the film’s most fascinating shots, Thomas almost gets lost in the mansion’s art gallery, which an overhead shot reveals to be maze with a face painted on the floor.

Thomas ends up on snow-covered the roof of the mansion (or rather one of its many roofs), crying for his mother. After nearly falling from the roof, he reaches his computer room (a different batcave) and sends a transmission to his mother’s office as well as to Pilou’s printer.

Meanwhile, Santa discovers the secret entrance into the other batcave, which is through an English Electric refrigerator. Santa, still wielding the cake-server, stalks the grandfather, but Thomas arrives at the last minute to rescue him. Santa chases them through the mansion again. Through the clever ruse of having his grandfather speak through a walkie talkie, Thomas traps Santa in one of the mansion’s many saunas.

Also, Thomas’s mother, who is driving home after being unable to call Thomas, drives through a fence and her car’s front end dangles over the edge of a cliff.

At the mansion, Santa stabs Thomas with the cake-server just as Pilou arrives. Thomas tells Pilou to run and get help, which causes Santa to chase Pilou’s bike through the snow. In an unexpected turn of events, Pilou survives to bicycle away from the mansion.

With an injured Thomas finding his way to the attic, the film pauses for a musical interlude, playing the classic Christmas song “Merry Christmas” by Bonnie Tyler, recorded specifically for this classic film.

“Merry, merry Christmas
Don’t change, kids, stay with us
Stay a little Jesus
Hold on to my hand.
It’s not a long way
To fly alone.
Don’t fly in vain.
It’s so hard anyway
To become a man.

Happy birthday, Christmas,
Welcome home, Jesus.
Though you reign on earth
You can’t understand
Why even a child
Learning the truth
Always learns pain.
Why does he have to cry
To become a man?

Help me, Santa Claus,
Come close to my heart.
All my doors are closed.
I can’t play my part.
I can’t play my part.

Wanted, Mister Christmas.
Dream of little Jesus.
Kids don’t grow up like us.
You could change the plan.
Here comes the darkness,
Time to be said.
Here comes the rain,
Please don’t leave him hopeless
He’ll become a man.
He’ll become a man.
He’ll become a man.”

During the song, Thomas puts a splint on his leg and buries his dog.

In the final act, Thomas is prepared to give up on his belief in Santa Claus in order to survive. He rigs the mansion with death traps—that is, more death traps. Cleverly, Thomas uses the trappings of childhood (sharpened pencils, darts, plastic toy grenades, toy trains) to defeat the menace invading his home and symbolically putting an end to his childhood (a conceit used to equal if not even better effect in Bryan Bertino’s 2016 film The Monster). Santa wanders the halls of the mansion searching for Thomas, only to be shot with darts and nearly set on fire.

In a particularly resonant scene that is also suspenseful, Thomas rigs a toy locomotive with an explosive grenade, then winds it up and sends it toward Santa. As the train chimes hypnotically, Santa stares at it with wistful nostalgia. Then Santa winds it up again and sends it back toward Thomas, where it nearly blows up at the feet of the suit of armor in which his grandfather is hiding. The explosive turns out to be a dud, however.

In the finale, Thomas sees a police car arrive. Thomas runs to his grandfather, still ensconced in the suit of armor—and now begging for his insulin. While Thomas searches a massive drug cabinet for the shot, Santa sneaks up on him and holds the cake-server to his throat. “I win. You lose. Now I hide and you seek, okay? You count to 20. No cheating, huh?”

Thomas starts counting, but decides not to obey the criminally insane person. He runs outside to find the policeman, but he only finds the police car, hot-wiring it and driving away. Shockingly, Santa appears in the back of the police car, yelling, “You’re cheating!” and causing Thomas to crash into a tree. (For some reason, the car crash covers both of them in mud, though there is no mud to be seen anywhere.)

Meanwhile, Thomas’s mother’s assistant/lover has rescued her (offscreen) from her cliff-dangling car and drives her toward the mansion. Thomas climbs out of the wrecked police car, only to be chased through the snowy street by Santa. Thomas stumbles over the policeman’s dead body. He retrieves the man’s gun and shoots Santa tearfully. Running back to the mansion, he frees his grandfather from the suit of armor and injects him with insulin, saving his life. Shockingly, however, Santa returns, shambling into the mansion.

In a harrowing scene, Thomas’s grandfather grabs the gun, but he is nearly blind without his glasses. He aims at a blurry figure and shoots.

Thomas kneels over the fallen Santa, remembering dialogue from earlier in the movie. “But Santa…his skeleton was never found.”

Thomas’s mother and her lover arrive, finding Thomas over the dead Santa as well as the grandfather pulling off the rest of his suit of armor. “Thomas, it’s all over,” his mother says, comforting him.

“It’s my fault, Mom. I wanted to see Santa Claus.”

In the final shot, the camera moves along the dead Santa’s body, revealing that his arm is outstretched toward the fireplace, as if he were desperately trying to escape the house through the chimney. An empty pair of boots stands on the hearth, perhaps waiting for presents that will never come.

Dial Code Santa Claus captures different aspects of the holiday season better than any film before or since. Certainly, the mountains of toys and the position of Thomas's mother as CEO of a successful toy company really capture the capitalistic essence of Christmas and other holidays. Similarly, the dreamlike quality of the winter holidays is captured both in the cinematography and in the way director Rene Manzon shoots scenes that can only be dream sequences--but that turn out to be really happening. (In fact, there are no dream sequences in the entire film.) The lovingly extended shots of Thomas's mansion add to the dreamlike quality; they are clearly miniature shots, but the filmmakers are so enchanted by the family mansion (almost a castle) that the camera frequently flies over the roofs and back just to take it all in. The film is also one of the finest examples of that rare genre of movies where the protagonist wears pajamas for most of the film (c.f. Ruben Galindo Jr.'s Don't Panic, 1987, and Aaron Lipstadt's City Limits, 1984).

It should also be noted that Dial Code Santa Claus is unique as a slasher movie in which all the deaths are offscreen, but in which the killer graphically murders a dog onscreen.

I will resist the urge to pitch a sequel set 30 years later, Dial Code Santa Claus 2: Battle of the Santas in which Thomas must dress as Santa to force his 10-year-old son to believe in Christmas magic to fend off a family of killer Santas seeking revenge for Thomas's long-ago murder of the nameless psychotic Santa.

Dial Code Santa Claus is truly a Christmas gift, a cinematic treasure that has stood the test of time and will be revisited during the holiday season for years to come. Happy Holidays!