Bonus Features: I Declare War (2012)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2012’s I Declare War, is a darkly comic fantasy thriller that illustrates a children’s game of Capture the Flag as a gritty war story.  Unfortunately, it’s one of our rare Movie of the Month selections that did not hit home for me, personally.  Its premise is fun enough, and I was mostly charmed by its low-budget backyard filmmaking aesthetics, but the overall vibes are just . . . off.  Specifically, I was tripped up by some of its more dire #edgelord one-liners, and I’m not sure that it ever escalates its high-concept premise beyond its initial novelty.  Then again, that novelty was in playing children’s playground imagination fantasies as a straight war film, and that’s just not my genre.  I found myself alternating between boredom and annoyance for most of its runtime, which is typically how I react to even well-respected war movies, so it might actually be successful as the genuine thing.

As disappointed as I ended up being with I Declare War as a finished product, I still think there’s a fun germ of an idea in its central conceit.  It’s just also one that you can see executed in better, earlier films.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month (or at least the idea of it) and want to see more films where children’s playtime war games are treated with the severity of a genuine war epic.

Son of Rambow (2007)

Maybe the reason I Declare War made me squeamish was that the cast of kids are so unashamedly gross.  They have the talk-shouting acting skills of a Disney Channel Original, but they also take transgressive delight in cussing and making 4-chan level jokes about blowjobs & altar boys.  It’s off-putting.  By contrast, I was thoroughly charmed by the 2007 twee comedy Son of Rambow, in which the kids are rambunctious but sweet in their fictional battlefield mischief.  Like I Declare War, Son of Rambow is guided by a childlike sense of imagination, as indicated in its tagline “Make believe, not war.”  The difference is that the kids in Son of Rambow are adorable little scamps, while the kids of I Declare War are gross little internet trolls.  It may be a less authentic depiction of childhood personalities, but it’s a lot easier to stomach at feature length.

In Son of Rambow, two mismatched British schoolboys bond while making a D.I.Y. sequel to First Blood with a camcorder in the woods.  Their bootleg Rambo sequel recalls the cutesy backyard-moviemaking aesthetics of similar comedies like Brigsby Bear & Be Kind Rewind, focusing more on the anything-can-happen chaos of a child’s imagination than the grim logistics of real-life warfare.  While the kids of I Declare War are obsessed with the traditional war-epic plot machinations of the movie Patton, the kids of Son of Rambow toss in whatever spur-of-the-moment whimsies pop up in their playtime: ninjas, flying dogs, killer scarecrows, whatever.  You’ll either find their playtime antics cloying or wonderful depending on your relationship with twee whimsy.  Either way, it offers a sweet counterpoint to the bitter battlefield grotesqueries of I Declare War.

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

Maybe it’s wrong to soften the harsh reality of warfare with twee whimsy.  Maybe a proper alternative to I Declare War would have to sweeten its bitter truths with a different kind of genre-bending novelty.  Child’s Play 3 is at least more somber in its approach to children playing soldiers in the woods, in that it’s set in a somewhat realistic military academy where young kids are forced to play make-believe that they’re adult killing-machines.  Its most direct connection to I Declare War arrives in the third act, when their traditional wargames simulation is made tragically lethal – their guns’ paintball ammo swapped with actual bullets.  Of course, the novelty in that premise is provided by the mischievous villain who supplied that live ammo: the supernatural killer doll Chucky.

To be honest, even Child’s Play 3 sticks a little too close to traditional war movie genre tropes for my tastes.  Having to spend even 90 breezy minutes in its drab military school setting feels like being punished alongside Andy for crimes I didn’t commit.  Chucky does a lot to break up the monotony of that rigidly uniform setting, though.  It’s easily my least favorite of the original Child’s Play trilogy, but it’s late enough in the series that Chucky fully comes into his own as a mainstay slasher villain, quipping his way through every kill with fun catchphrases & cheap one-liners.  Also, my boredom with its war-film tropes is rewarded with a last-minute trip to an amusement park in an incredible finale.  That’s more than I can say for I Declare War, which never leaves its D.I.Y. military bases in the woods.

3615 code Père Noël (aka Deadly Games, 1989)

The ideal neutral ground between the cutesy whimsy of Son of Rambow and the military-school machismo of Child’s Play 3 is likely the 1989 French home-invasion thriller Deadly Games, making it the perfect counterpoint to I Declare War‘s playground wargames tedium.  The problem is that it’s blasphemous to watch Deadly Games any month but December, since it’s explicitly a Christmas film.  In the movie, a spoiled rich child plays macho protector to his empty mansion against a psychotic invader who’s dressed as Santa Claus (whom the boy mistakes for the real deal).  To eliminate this threat, the boy suits up as a miniature Rambo, armed with an endless arsenal of high-tech gadgets & children’s toys to weaponize against the killer Santa.  He treats his mission with the deadly seriousness of a real-life war skirmish, which is good, because the adult Santa very well might kill him.

Director René Manzor was reportedly pissed that his film was “plagiarized” by the massive 90s hit Home Alone, and it’s easy to see the connections between the two films’ shared boobytrap defense systems & Christmas Eve home-invasion premises.  However, whereas Home Alone‘s boobytrap antics are played for broad slapstick humor, Deadly Games is deadly serious about the threat its enemy encroachment presents.  The child’s response to the invading Santa Claus is charmingly imbued with playtime imagination, especially in his plastic weapons of choice.  The severity of the resulting battle is genuinely thrilling, though, even more so than most actual Rambo movies.  It skillfully toys with the exact boundary between childhood whimsy & wartime brutality that I Declare War clumsily aims for, but no self-respecting adult should watch it any sooner in the calendar year than the day after Thanksgiving.

-Brandon Ledet

3615 code Père Noël (aka Deadly Games, 1989)

In our recent discussion of Paprika for the Lagniappe podcast, Brandon mentioned that he likes Christmas slashers, and I challenged him to name three (since Black Christmas is a given, and everyone has their own favorite Silent Night, Deadly Night – for Brandon, it’s Initiation). Luckily, streaming service Shudder has an “Unhappy Holidays” selection. There are some perennial favorites in there, like the aforementioned Black Christmas and its much-maligned 2006 remake as well as prior Movie of the Month Rare Exports. While fishing for something to watch to help get into the spirit of the season, I stumbled upon 3615 code Père Noël (literally “3615 code Santa Claus” in reference to the Minitel code for sending messages to “Santa,” but released in the U.S. as Dial Code Santa Claus and Deadly Games). And boy was it a treat! 

Thomas de Frémont (Alain Musy), age 8, has the epitome of a charmed life, living in a castle with his widowed mother Julie (Brigitte Fossey) and her father, Papy (Louis Ducreux). Deep within the walls of the castle lies a series of secret passages and a gigantic playroom, filled with toys that once belonged to his late father, and his father’s father, etc. Even the boy’s mother does not know about this room, as this secret is passed from father to son. As his mother is the manager of a nearby location of the famous French department store Printemps, he also has all of the latest high tech gadgets, including the aforementioned Minitel system, a closed circuit surveillance system that he can operate with a chunky wrist remote, and even a trapdoor with a net, which he uses to capture his dog during an opening sequence in which he gives himself Rambo-style guerilla campaign war paint and acts out a quasi-Vietnam in miniature, all before breakfast. Thomas is a young millennial Pippi Longstocking: a child’s wish-fulfillment character, a hypercompetent little boy who mostly takes care of himself while still maintaining a childlike sense of wonder 3615; he can repair his mother’s car without adult assistance, but also still believes in Santa Claus. For now, anyway. 

It’s Christmas Eve, and in the city, a man in his forties wearing a yellow scarf (Patrick Floersheim) attempts to join in a children’s snowball fight, but they are disturbed by him and flee. Meanwhile, Julie manages to elicit her son’s Christmas list from him, despite his insistence that he can communicate directly with Santa using his Minitel, and leaves for work, but not before reminding him to make sure that Papy takes his insulin. Julie is given a ride by her assistant, Roland (François-Eric Gendron), much to Thomas’s annoyance, which prompts him to set to work repairing her vehicle. At work, Roland hands Thomas’s Christmas list off to an employee, to gather the desired toys and have them delivered to the caretakers at the de Frémont house, as Julie will be working late for the last-minute Christmas Eve push, which includes getting as many Santas into the store as possible. After a visit from a friend who tries to convince him that Santa is a lie, Thomas uses his Minitel to communicate with the 3516 Santa line, but unbeknownst to him, the person on the other end is the man in the yellow scarf, who asks increasingly invasive questions, until Thomas logs off. The yellow scarfed man then takes one of the Printemps Santa positions, but when a young girl is disturbed by him, he ends up striking her, which Julie sees, prompting her to fire him immediately. In the personnel office to collect his payment and be discharged, he overhears Roland giving final instructions for the delivery of Thomas’s Christmas presents, and he hides in the back of the van, with the intent to make some merry (and murderous) mischief. 

This is going to date me, but the first memory I have of going to the movies was to see Beauty and the Beast. According to my mother, however, I was first taken to the theater at age 3 in 1990, to see Home Alone, which, according to Deadly Games director René Manzor, was plagiarized from his film. And yeah, there are definitely similarities; ironically, when I think about sitting in that theater watching Beauty and the Beast and being utterly captivated, what I remember most is that opening sequence with the stained glass and the musical track that is similar-to-but-legally(?)-distinct-from the seventh movement of Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le Carnaval des animaux, so in reality, both of my earliest filmgoing experiences were in some part (allegedly) stolen from the French. The thing about Deadly Games is that it’s infinitely superior to its alleged American rip-off. Home Alone is a perfectly fine family movie with slapstick comedy that acts as a sort of fantasy for children, and which is slotted into being a Christmas movie by default simply because it takes place during the holidays (see also: Die Hard); the fact that Kevin is alone at Christmas is fairly incidental to the plot, and the film could just as easily be set in July with no real change to the plot and only a few minor changes to dialogue. Deadly Games, with its Santa-dressed antagonist, Christmas Eve plot elements, and explicit connection to the loss of innocence and faith in magic that comes as a result of learning that Santa Claus isn’t real, cannot be separated from the narrative without changing it substantially. Even the whiteness in the killer’s beard and hair comes from using a can of tree flocking. 

Not to keep harping on the similarities to (and differences from) Home Alone, Thomas and Kevin are very different kids living in very different universes. Kevin is buoyant and well-tempered, and although our heartstrings are tugged when he misses his family, he never seems to be in too much danger; we never really fear for his life. Thomas, on the other hand, gets injured (pretty badly) over the course of Deadly Games, although he manages to take care of himself and his grandfather fairly well in spite of being a child, and his innocence is contrasted with both his hypercompetence and the distinctly adult nature of the danger that he is in. Before she leaves for work, Thomas’s mother tells him not to try and stay up to wait for Santa Claus, or see him, as Santa turns into an “ogre” if he is seen by children on Christmas Eve. Thomas still tries to use his security camera set-up to be the first kid to get proof of Santa’s existence, but when he does see the less-than-jolly intruder enter the house (through the chimney, no less), he’s excited, until the moment that the killer hurts his dog. From there, an intense cat-and-mouse ensues, and Thomas matches wits pretty well, despite his injuries including presumed frostbite from both climbing around on the roof to escape “Santa” and running through the woods to the caretakers’ house to get his grandfather’s spare insulin, a leg injury that he is forced to splint using a broken chair, and a lifetime of mental scars. 

A lot of people in my friend group hate Christmas, and I’m actually the odd one out for loving it. I love Christmas lights, the joy of getting someone something that they didn’t know existed but which fits them perfectly, wrapping presents, tinsel, hot chocolate and cider and mulled wine, and the aesthetics of the Winter Wonderland. By the same token, however, I dislike many of the trappings of the holiday: the idea of “gift guides” is, in and of itself, disgusting commercialist, consumerist propaganda to me; I find Christmas music exhausting, pervasive, and annoying; I can’t stand the right wing propaganda mills’ annual manufactured outrage about the supposed “War on Christmas” and how those “news” outlets have simultaneously radicalized and rotted the brains of large swaths of multiple generations of American voters. Other than holiday-themed episodes of generally cynical shows that I already enjoy, most Christmas filmic media is far too saccharine, cloying, and regressive for my taste. How I long for a subversive anti-Hallmark Christmas movie where our lead goes back to their hometown and, instead of encountering a situation that inscribes and glorifies the morally questionable values of rampant consumerism, patriarchal family structures, and having precisely one (1) apolitical black friend, they instead are reminded that they left their podunk nowheres to pursue dreams, not of having more, but of being more, and that home is actually full of undisguised racism, self-congratulating political hypocrisy, and abuse, only to return to their found family in The City and having a truly merry Christmas. But alas, such a thing does not seem to exist. For those of us who love both Christmas and thrills, however, at least there’s Deadly Games

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond