Color, 1989, 91 mins. 33 secs.
Directed by René Manzor
Starring Brigitte Fossey, Louis Ducreux, Patrick Floersheim, Alain Musy, François Eric Gendron, Stéphane Legros
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), Camera Obscura (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria R0/R2 HD/PAL), Le Chat Qui Fume (Blu-ray) (France RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
The strange history of French genre cinema is dotted with bizarre, fascinating hybrids mashing horror with everything from whodunits to action films, ranging from breakthrough hits like Brotherhood of the Wolf to unjustly obscure gems like Death on a Rainy Sunday. One that was clearly aiming for mainstream success is 3615 code Père Noël, which was advertised as sort of a kid-friendly Christmas thriller with elements of Rambo and video games. However, the actual film is a lot crazier and rougher than viewers probably expected, essentially a violent cat and mouse tale with a young boy facing off against a homicidal Santa Claus over the course of a very traumatic Christmas Eve. Some viewers understandably pointed to this as an uncredited inspiration for the following year's Home Alone (which sort of makes sense but doesn't come anywhere close to plagiarism), though this film didn't make much of a splash outside of France and Japan despite some aggressive sales attempts under the English titles Deadly Games and Game Over.
The opening image of a Christmas snow globe being shattered by a passing truck sets up the tone right away as we meet little Thomas (Musy, son of director René Manzor), a clever but pop culture-obsessed little boy who loves playing war games and setting up elaborate traps and arsenals around the house (where not even the family pooch is safe). His skill with electronics comes in handy since his divorced mom (Fossey) runs the biggest department store around, which offers plenty of opportunities to stock up. Unfortunately this year's store Santa (Diva's Floersheim) is a giggling insane asylum escapee who sets his sights on Thomas on Christmas Eve, just when mom's away and unable to be reached. Poor Thomas has been left in charge of his pretty hip invalid grandfather (Ducreux), but that's the least of his responsibilities when the evil fake Santa comes calling. That sets off a lengthy test of wits between Tommy and the intruder, which turns the entire, enormous house into a bloody battleground.
Beautifully shot and crazed enough to keep you on your toes about exactly where the whole thing's heading, this is a film that would probably have a bigger English-speaking cult following if more viewers actually had the chance to see it. The presence of the grandfather (who can barely see due to his diabetes) is a smart decision to ups the stakes considerably, keeping this in far more intense territory than your average kids vs. robbers movie. It also doesn't shy away from gruesome material when it comes to humans or animals (thankfully very simulated in both cases), and the theme of violence's effect on a young boy who truly believes he's dealing with the real Santa Claus is handled more responsibly than what might have happened in the hands of American filmmakers.
For some reason this film has a very sparse home video history including a bootleg Spanish DVD. Fortunately that track record changed dramatically with the 2017 three-disc edition from Camera Obscura, which offers an extensive, loving tribute to a film ripe for rediscovery. Disc one is a Blu-ray containing the feature film with the original French or dubbed German tracks in LPCM 2.0 stereo, with optional English or German subtitles. For a film mostly shot with deliberate diffusion, the transfer looks excellent with a very maxed-out bit rate and featuring a fine layer of cinematic grain and colors that stay true to the vivid, music video-inspired color palette. Also included on the first disc is a Manzor short film, "Synapses" (5m20s), a surreal, (mostly) animated piece about a man in a yellow scarf drifting through a strange netherworld of brick walls, magical doorways, and electric chairs. A lengthy production gallery (18m14s) features commentary by the director, followed by the French, English and Italian trailers, a pair of stylish French teasers, and two TV spots (with cautions to the public about the level of violence in the kid-targeted film).
The second disc, a DVD (which is Region 2 versus the region-free Blu-ray), features the same contents in standard definition. The third disc is an extra PAL DVD of separate bonus material, starting off with the new feature-length documentary, "Jouets Interdits" (85m8s), with Manzor looking back at how the film came about during a drought on genre cinema in France, the dedication to his "film father" Alain Delon, the miniatures needed for the ambitious 360-degree shots, and the one scene he hates and wishes he could cut. "To Become a Man" (39m10s) with Musy focuses on how he ended up being cast in the lead of his father's film (after appearing in his previous film with Delon, The Passage) and his thoughts on the war obsession of the character he played, as well as the inspiration for the script when he personally stopped believing in Santa. A vintage interview with a young Musy on the set (8m49s), along with Floersheim and production designer Eric Moulard, offers a different perspective as the young boy chats about watching Delon; some interesting VHS-shot footage from the shoot is included as well. Also included are a storyboard-to-scene comparison (6m35s), a music video for the "Merry Christmas" theme song by Bonnie Tyler(!), and "Pre-Trailer Model Shots" (2m41s) showing narrated footage of the swirling camera shot through the model. Some of the extras were produced in collaboration with French label Le Chat Qui Fume, who also announced its own three-disc edition that appears to be very similar (including English subs for the main feature) apart from an audio commentary (presumably not English-friendly) added to what appears to be the same slate of special features.
In 2020, Vinegar Syndrome brought the film to UHD and Blu-ray as a combo pack just in time for the holidays. The 4K-sourced transfer appears to be from the same scan, though on the Blu-ray it's been given a bit more color correction and has punchier, more vibrant reds and browns in particular. The UHD benefits significantly from the addition of HDR here and looks gorgeous in motion with a much wider spectrum of color on display that makes the heavy reliance on blue lighting from over half the film easier to appreciate; blacks are also deeper and richer throughout, and the white snow really pops whenever it flurries across the screen. The DTS-HD MA French 2.0 track sounds excellent and decodes beautifully to surround with lots of multi-channel activity throughout. The specs list "newly translated English SDH subtitles," though thankfully that's not correct as these are standard English subs without SDH designations (light yellow on the Blu-ray, white on the UHD). The UHD is bare bones and devotes all of its space to the film itself, a wise choice given how much breathing room it gets; the Blu-ray features a slate of extras essentially mirroring what's on the Camera Obscura release, albeit running at proper speed now so the running times vary a bit. (For example, "Jouets Interdits," or "Forbidden Games" as it's translated here, now runs 88m46s.) The production featurette is now called "Simon Says Roll Sound," FYI, in case you're trying to compare.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray)
Camera Obscura (Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 7, 2020