Aug 23, 2018
Holiday Movie Duel: Home Alone vs. Dial Code Santa Claus
I usually try to keep a pretty level playing field here on Movie Duels. If I tried to compare Transformers to Transmorphers, it probably wouldn’t be very interesting, at least not in the way I intended it. My inner sense of fair play mandates that any two movies I feature in one of these columns are roughly in the same ballpark in terms of budget, talent roster, distribution, genre, tone, and ambitiousness; and I’ve passed up the opportunity to compare several movie twins because they didn’t meet these criteria.
Our current Movie Duel is a special case where I break most of these rules. Today’s two movies came out over a year apart, had vastly differing budgets, belong to different genres, and weren’t even made in the same country. Another first: this is the first instance in which one Movie Duel contestant was accused of plagiarizing another. In 1990, French director Rene Manzor approached 20th Century Fox with the complaint that their film Home Alone appropriated key story elements of his 1989 movie 3615 code Père Noël (known variously in English-speaking countries as Game Over, Deadly Games, 36:15 Hide and Freak, and Dial Code Santa Claus), baldly saying “they remade my movie”. He pursued a settlement with the studio and threatened to sue, but that seems to be as far as it got. Whether Manzor seriously expected any money, or was just trying to drum up home video sales for Dial Code Santa Claus is a question best left to the philosophers.
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After watching both movies back-to-back, I don’t think comparing the two can yield an actionable plagiarism case, even if plagiarism law in the movie industry was worth a sack of pig balls. But as fodder for a Movie Duels column, it’s gold.
I won’t bother summarizing Home Alone, as everybody who reads this is no doubt aware of movies and was at some point alive during Christmas, so I’ll go ahead and give you the rundown on Dial Code Santa Claus. Our protagonist, Thomas de Fremont (Alain Lalanne), is a very smart but socially awkward preteen obsessed with action movies and technology. He lives in a gigantic secluded mansion with his mother and his ailing grandfather. Over the Minitel (a pre-Internet telecommunications platform popular in France), Thomas is catfished (to use the modern parlance) by an insane drifter (Patrick Floersheim) who claims to be Santa Claus. The drifter is able to gather that Thomas’s mother manages the local Printemps department store, and gets a job there as a Santa, but is fired almost immediately when he slaps a child. Nevertheless, he successfully finds out Thomas’s address and travels there in his Santa costume while Thomas’s mother is doing her store’s accounts. He kills the cook, security guard, and Thomas’s dog and kicks off a cat-and-mouse game pursuing Thomas and his grandfather around the house.
Comparing Thomas’s character with that of Home Alone‘s Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) yields a lot of great lessons in how to write and direct child characters. I hate Kevin. It’s one of the most irritating performances in living memory. I liked Culkin just fine in other movies, but here he seems to have been picked for this role based entirely on the creepy eel-like way his mouth opens when he screams, the discomfiting effect of which is repeatedly played for humor.
His character is a shifting jumble of flimsy traits based on what worm-brained Hollywood bozos think kids are like. An incongruously prodigious vocabulary? Check. A habit of diagetically narrating to himself? Check. A preternatural ability to bamboozle and manipulate adults? Check. Exaggerated, phony sarcasm? Check. He’s inconsistently sketched based on the needs of the narrative—at the beginning of the movie, he’s bitching a blue streak because he doesn’t know how to pack a suitcase, and two days later he’s pulverizing burglars with MacGyver traps showing a level of creativity and practical know-how I could never hope to match.
The character of Thomas, on the other hand, is weird in a way that’s both more believable, more interesting, and much more characteristically childlike. He watches action movies all day, tinkers with computers all night, and plays D&D with his grandpa after dinner. The movie’s first scene features Thomas in a Rambo-inspired suiting-up montage before he plays a freaky little pretend game where he flushes his dog into a remote control trapdoor he installed in the floor. For all his smarts and worldliness, he’s a naif where Santa Claus is concerned. He installs a video surveillance system in his house, and routes the feed to a wrist computer in an attempt to see Santa Claus, which works out for him later when the Santa-disguised drifter breaks in. Strangely enough, he doesn’t stop believing the drifter is Santa even after things turn violent, heeding his grandfather’s words that Santa Claus “turns into an ogre” if you try to stay up and see him. Thomas’s weird mix of nerdery and credulity is super relatable. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character could come off as a charmless brainiac or possibly a serial killer in training, but Lalanne’s finely measured charisma buoys his character’s unlikely adventures.
Dial Code Santa Claus‘s visual style largely draws from ’80s action and slasher movies; there’s no angle too Dutch, no color palette too blue, and no montage too long for it. Home Alone‘s style is more bizarre if anything, crammed full of French New Wave touches like jump cuts, artsy overhead shots, and talking faces superimposed on either side of Kevin’s head representing his memories. But then again, there’s a lot in Home Alone that’s bizarre. The incomprehensible-to-modern-eyes apathy of the police toward an unattended child; The fantasy sequences with the evil living furnace; The all-over-the-place emotional beats, like when John Candy tells a super-dark anecdote about accidentally leaving his son at a funeral parlor, which occurs right after the criminals have gone to jail and right before the movie’s final heartwarming scene. I kind of like watching blockbusters from this time period: they have a lot of kooky irregularities that would never make it into today’s polished, focus-grouped studio offerings.
The supporting characters make Home Alone for me. Catherine O’Hara as the supremely put-together mom always on her last fraying nerve is a breathless wonder to behold. The vaudeville duo of Marv (Daniel Stern) and Harry (Joe Pesci) has the movie’s only genuinely funny comedy bits, as well as a lot of enjoyable character moments (like Marv wearing a snorkel as he ransacks a house). They don’t have the strongest of motivations—why in the world would they expend so much effort on robbing one house after robbing every single other one on the block?—but the farcical, screwball-comedy conceits of the script sell their obsession pretty well.
In the case of Dial Code Santa Claus, the kindly adult role is filled by Thomas’s grandfather (Louis Decreux), a half-blind, diabetic old man who indulges Thomas’s obsessions. Unlike in Home Alone, Thomas has a good relationship with his family, his grandfather in particular, and that particular conflict isn’t part of his arc. Dial Code Santa Claus‘s villain, who’s only credited as “Santa”, is played to deranged perfection by Patrick Florsheim, a veteran French actor who made a comfortable living dubbing Robin Williams into French. He’s less a bumbling meanie and more a murdering… murderer, and his motives are even more obscure than those of Marv and Harry’s. At one point, he catches Thomas, and—keeping in mind he’s already killed several people and stabbed Thomas in the leg at this point—releases him, saying, “Now you’ll be it, and I’ll hide myself. Count to twenty and no peeking!”
The booby-trap sequences that Dial Code Santa Claus and Home Alone are both known for (and which would form the basis of Rene Manzor’s putative lawsuit) are both alike in that they take up far less of the movie than you’d imagine. The violence in Home Alone is light and cartoony (well, maybe not that light), evoking Looney Tunes and the Three Stooges. Dial Code Santa Claus, as you would imagine, is on another level. Where Kevin is content with making his invaders slip, cut their feet, and get bopped in the head with a lot of things, Thomas shoots Santa with darts and an arrow, sets him on fire, locks him in a sauna, tries to blow him up with a homemade grenade, and eventually straight-up shoots him with a dead police officer’s gun. Rambo is the clear inspiration here, with a little bit of Halloween and Die Hard thrown in for texture.
As much as “X is a Christmas movie” is thrown around these days, I don’t know if I would consider Dial Code Santa Claus an actual Christmas movie. Home Alone definitely is. Dial Code Santa Claus does take place at Christmas, and Christmas does figure into the plot, but it does so in an ironic manner, with the setting and Santa’s visit being played purely for shock value. Home Alone, on the other hand, tackles Christmas-related themes like family, faith, and consumerism; it has multiple character arcs where people renew their devotion to their loved ones and find new sources of kindness in unlikely places; and it concludes with real Christmas miracles. As cool, twisted, and fun as Dial Code Santa Claus is, it’ll only ever be a Christmas tradition among cult-movie fans who think Home Alone is beneath them.
That’s why Home Alone wins this Holiday Movie Duel.