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

Episode #144 of The Swampflix Podcast: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Welcome to Episode #144 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee, James, Brandon, and Hanna discuss the heyday, return, and possible retirement of TV’s all-time greatest horror host: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

00:00 Welcome

02:00 Malignant (2021)
09:55 White of the Eye (1987)
13:45 Titane (2021)
18:15 Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

22:33 Elvira’s 40th Anniversary, Very Scary, Very Special Special, Especially for You (2021)

48:58 Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)
1:00:18 Elvira’s Haunted Hills (2001)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Horror Noire (2019)

It’s initially tempting to receive the Shudder-produced documentary Horror Noire as a kind of celebratory victory lap after the financial & awards season successes of Get Out helped greenlight so much new black art in the horror genre. Indeed, the film includes several interviews with black creators whose latest projects were funded in the wake of Get Out’s game-changing pop culture impact, including author Robin R. Means Coleman, whose eponymous source material itself was greenlit into this feature-length documentary the very morning after Jordan Peele won his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (as reported on an episode of Shock Waves early this year). Horror Noire does allow the recent success story of Get Out to boost morale on its back end, and several black authors & filmmakers do use the opportunity to plug their latest projects, but this documentary is just as much of a rebuke as it is a celebration. It’s first & foremost an academic conversation covering the history of black representation in American horror cinema, from the coded racial caricature of amoral classics like King Kong & The Creature from The Black Lagoon to the celebratory upswing in black filmmaking in the modern day. The history of black representation, black audiences, and black art in American pop culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for Horror Noire to play like the victory lap a lesser film could slip into, and it’s impressive to see a talking-heads doc on this scale & subject to be willing to have those tough conversations. As one interviewee puts it, “We’ve always loved horror, but horror hasn’t always loved us.”

The list of celebrity interviewees from The Black Horror Hall of Fame gathered here is impressive and alone worth the effort of putting this doc together: Jordan Peele, Ernest Dickerson, Ken Foree, Tony Todd, Loretta Divine, Keith Davis, The Craft’s Rachel True, etc. Their talking-heads commentary is smartly staged as audiences watching the screen inside a movie theater rather than as creators toiling in their workspaces, emphasizing how onscreen representation shaped them as people as well as artists. The real joy of this film, however, is how much it allows author Robin R. Means Coleman to guide the discussion in her own words instead of letting the flashier celebrity interviewees fully take over. She obviously has a reverence for horror cinema as an artform, but she’s also fearless in interrogating the ways it has failed black audiences since the very beginning. American history itself is declared to be “black horror.” Birth of Nation is framed as a horror film from black audiences’ POV. Tropes like the easily scared back buffoon providing comedic relief, the “magical negro” helping white characters navigate supernatural realms, and the sole black character being the first to die – and so on – are called out for their social menace even in beloved horror classics like Candyman & The Shining. Get Out’s success is contextualized as a cyclical breakthrough moment that’s already been seen before in landmark texts like The Night of the Living Dead, Blacula, and post-Spike Lee 90s gems like Tales from the Hood. Coleman is given free rein to throw bare-knuckled academic punches here, and she does not disappoint.

Although this isn’t the surface-level celebration of black success stories in horror cinema that it easily could have been, it’s still only a thematic primer that compresses Coleman’s rigorous academic text into a breezy 83min discussion. As such, I didn’t walk away with too many deep-cut recommendations for titles I haven’t seen before (Sugar Hill, Abby, and Def by Temptation being the few standouts), but the implied promise is that there’s plenty more to dig into once I pick up the book that inspired this production. Since this is just a standalone feature and not a ten-part mini-series, however, that compression is perfectly suited for the task at hand: using the success of Get Out to center a crucial academic discussion that well deserves the signal boost. It’s not the exhaustive, final word on the topic the way a lengthy academic text could afford to be, but it’s a worthwhile conversation starter that isn’t afraid to take on the Goliaths of the genre as it interrogates a history just as worthy of scrutiny as celebration. A weightier film would’ve been less digestible in a single sitting, and a lighter one would’ve underserved the political & emotional severity of its subject. In that way, Horror Noire finds an ideal Goldilocks middle ground, while doing the essential public service of amplifying Robin R. Means Coleman’s authorial voice.

-Brandon Ledet

Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet