The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we celebrate the holiday horror-comedy Deadly Games.*
I grew up with Home Alone, and 28 years later, I still remember seeing it in the theater, howling with laughter, then immediately begging my mom to take me again as the credits rolled. I've lost count of how many times I've watched this John Hughes holiday romp over the years. But now, I am actively furious at Home Alone. And it's all because of Deadly Games, a movie with the same premise, that did it better, bolder, and first.
Thirty years after it was shot, Deadly Games finally made its US premiere as part of Fantastic Fest's repertory slate in the midnight screening block. I wasn't there. (I saw Girls With Balls instead.) But the audiences pouring out of its first showing were so rapturous in their praise, I had to see it and rushed to get tickets for the next day. Still, despite the unabashed raves, I was a bit skeptical. I mean, if this movie was really that good, how had I—an aficionado of bonkers horror movies—never heard of it before? But 90 minutes later, my skepticism was slain, and I was reborn as a Deadly Games convert. So allow me to share the good word on the best holiday horror movie you've never seen.
Written and directed by René Manzor, Deadly Games centers on Thomas (Alain Lalanne), a 9-year-old boy with a big imagination and astounding ingenuity, encouraged by wealth and a loving mother who lets him modify their family mansion as his heart desires. Obsessed with action movies, Thomas sleeps in a bed that looks like a WWII airplane, with one seat for him and one for his beloved dog J.R. Before going to the breakfast table, he dresses up as a pint-sized Rambo, complete with combat boots, headband, face paint, and a theatrical snarl. Then, he chases a joyful J.R. through the halls, bouncing on beds, barreling through open windows, and snaring his pupper in a trap, where the hallway floor falls away and drops into a safety net. (Don't worry. J.R. is fine. But things get dark for the doggo later...)
Thomas is at an age where he's still learning the difference between fact and fantasy. So, when he wonders if Santa is real, he decides to set up a series of surveillance cameras around the massive mansion to catch the jolly home invader on tape. All of Thomas's toys, games, tech and pretending will come in handy when a cruel reality comes crashing down his chimney. On Christmas Eve, his widowed mom is stuck at work, leaving Thomas, his adoring grandfather, and J.R. to their own devices. All is well until the maniacal mall Santa (Patrick Floersheim) that his mom fired decides to exact revenge by crashing the families' festivities.
From this, you can probably see why Manzor—whose film shot two years before Home Alone's release—filed a lawsuit for plagiarism. And it must have been positively galling for Manzor to see his film denied a US release while Home Alone went on to become a smash hit. But you should feel cheated too! Because Deadly Games is hands down the superior film. For one thing, Deadly Games' psycho mall Santa is far scarier than the goofy Wet Bandits. This guy didn't come to rob a house; he came with mayhem on his mind. And Manzor makes clear the threat he brings by having his Santa slay a slew of innocent people before reaching Thomas's front door. Maybe the Wet Bandits would have hurt Kevin McCallister if they could have gotten close enough. But Deadly Games leaves no ambiguity of its life-or-death stakes, making the chase all the scarier.
On top of this, Manzor doesn't shy away from emotional stakes. While Kevin is in danger, Home Alone strives to keep things light, featuring numerous scenes of him relishing the torture he's laying down on his home invaders and celebrating. Thomas has no such luxury. The death of his father has made him aware of his own mortality, which is clear in a touching scene where he speaks of the legacy he hopes to leave behind with his toys. He won't whoop it up with fist pumps and yelps of delight, confident in his dominance and security. He'll tremble under tables, race through dark wings, and hide on a snowy and treacherously high rooftop, crying out in vain for his MIA mother. And while Kevin's motivation is very Stand Your Ground, Thomas worries not for his home or the material riches within, but for the safety of his half-blind and diabetic grandfather who is too fragile to fight back, and so must be hidden and protected.
The scares and dramatic stakes make our pulses race and hearts pound. But Manzor masterfully weaves in a playful whimsy that lightens the darkness and makes Deadly Games richly fun. Snares are set with colored pencils. A display suit of armor proves a surprising punch line. And a toy train is transformed into a festive booby trap. Manzor imagined what First Blood or Die Hard would look like if they centered on a wickedly smart kid who lived for those heroic fantasies. And what he came up with is a macabre yet magical journey of wish fulfillment that'll make you feel like a kid again, excited, scared, hopeful, and freshly aware of what a mad, mad, mad world lies around you.
It's insane that it's taken 30 years for Manzor's brilliant and bonkers film to play in the United States. But there is an upside. Debuting at Fantastic Fest, Deadly Games finally found an American audience and moreover, one that was absolutely destined to appreciate it for all its wild risks and weird twists. When Manzor came out for the Q&A, he was met with booming cheers and applause, and afterward received a steady stream of newfound fans—this reporter among them!
During the Q&A, Manzor gamely shared the background on the movie's making, revealing that Thomas was played by his own son, Alain Lalanne. And this early exposure to filmmaking had a lasting impact. Today, Lalanne is a visual effects producer who has helped create the jaw-dropping spectacle in such outstanding genre films as Splice, Avatar, Gravity, and Edge of Tomorrow. And there was one more bit of tantalizing news revealed at the Q&A.
At present, Deadly Games is only available on DVD in Germany and France. But asked if there were plans for a US release, Manzor confessed that he had been approached after the premiere by an interested party. So, fingers crossed, Deadly Games could soon find the bigger (and grateful) audience it's so long deserved.
*Note: Deadly Games is also known as Dial Code Santa Claus, Game Over, Hide and Freak, and 3615 code Père Noël.