Column: ‘Home Alone’ A Holiday Classic? Don’t Make Me Laugh
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Pardon me, but Home Alone has made enough hundreds of millions of dollars by now and solidified enough of a multigenerational fan base to survive the following review: to hell with it.
This is not a popular or festive sentiment. People are crazy for Home Alone. Macaulay Culkin’s blase comic authority killed, and helped make it one of the most popular comedies ever made. For millions of preteen children (and plenty of others), its final 30 minutes is the definition of rousing slapstick comedy.
This breaks my heart.
Seriously. It breaks my heart. The movie’s slapstick sensibility is harsh enough to invite comparisons to slasher movies. You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding. I’m heartbroken, and I’m not kidding.
This month an intriguing array of articles have appeared online and in print, exploring this notion of “Home Alone” as an insidious gateway drug, acclimating children the world over to the next level of related thrills and methodical kills found in the slasher genre. Rhett Jones, writing for Hopes&Fears, lays out the argument: “The best reason to watch slasher films is for the well-designed kill, always. The same goes for Home Alone, which is actually a pretty (messed) up movie.”
Let’s back up a moment. Verifiably, screenwriter John Hughes’ massively successful mashup of sadism and sentiment made Home Alone the biggest hit of 1990. This was thanks largely to the wily deadpan elan of the key performance: Macaulay Culkin as young, privileged but put-upon 8-year-old Kevin, left behind in a five-bedroom mansion (in Winnetka) while his busy, distracted family jets off to France for the holidays.
The coolly accomplished boy defends his turf against a pair of invading burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Kevin does so by going commando, rigging a series of booby traps inflicting grievous, skull-crushing bodily harm using hot tar, hot wires, nails to the foot, paint cans to the skull and a blowtorch. Everything but cluster bombs.
Director Chris Columbus went for broke, and for bizarrely realistic levels of brutality. Gruesome sight gags were filmed, and many people working on the movie assumed they’d never make the final cut. They did. All of them.
In 1990, reviewing it for the San Diego Union (now the Union-Tribune), I felt like a fringe dweller. “None of the hyper-violent gags in the climax — with Pesci and Stern getting irons in the face and blowtorches in the hair — are staged or performed with any wit; none of them are tailored to the individual actors’ styles … this is just second-shelf Three Stooges wrapped in treacle.” Grumble, grumble. Twenty-five years later, “Home Alone” remains one of the most profitable comedies ever made in America, and its silver anniversary is being celebrated with a return to theaters Dec. 9, for a limited theatrical rerelease.
Who could possibly work up a line of hate against such a familiar, entrenched, officially sanctioned Cute Picture?
A lot of people, it turns out. On Thrillist recently, Dan Jackson wrote of Home Alone and the even more violent Home Alone 2 as more disturbing, in their deceptive all-ages way, than Straw Dogs.
Jackson: “There’s surely a defense to be made of the series’ absurd violence by saying that it’s merely a live-action cartoon, a Wile E. Coyote-style explosion of kinetic action. As a child, it’s easy to be sucked in by the violent fantasies peddled by these movies … but at a certain point, the film’s constant violence starts to wear you down and you leave these movies behind. And when that happens, Straw Dogs will be waiting for you.” The writer refers to an instructive, blow-by-blow Slate piece by Alan Siegel, in which Home Alone is compared to Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge thriller, very rough for the time and seething with bloodthirsty comeuppances meted out to the home invaders.
“To my 7-year-old self,” Siegel writes of Home Alone, “the mayhem (in Home Alone’s) final 30 minutes was almost pornographic.” Sure enough, Siegel’s interview with Home Alone production designer John Muto has Muto admitting that, 25 years earlier, during filming, he “kept telling people we were doing a kids version of Straw Dogs.”
Interestingly (and this was true of another widely loved Hughes screenplay, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), the hometown reviews of Home Alone were tougher than many on the coasts. Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune: “The pleasures here are entirely cruel, with an unhealthy concentration on the suffering of the victims, on the thudding impact of various objects against their heads, on their howls of agony.” Regarding Home Alone 2, Kehr shrewdly notes that “the slapstick violence — already astonishingly intense in the first film — (grew) even more graphic and sadistic” in the second. Roger Ebert, who gave Home Alone a nonclassic 2.5 stars, compared its climax to that of Last House on the Left. Elsewhere, Time Out London: “It mistakes the pain threshold for hilarity.” TV Guide? “Full of unanticipated sadism … a close-up of Stern’s bare foot slipping slowly down on a six-inch nail is the film’s most ghastly image.”
That’s my problem with Home Alone. Its appeal is closer to bear-baiting than prime visual comedy. It jerks you around, from an improbable (but effective) child’s nightmare of abandonment to a liberating vision of a child’s premature adulthood, capping it off with a coldblooded vanquishing of the enemy. It’s the biggest bait-and-switch holiday movie of all time.
Maybe that’s why people love it; after one too many rounds with A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, maybe the skull-cracking came as a relief.
©2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci in “Home Alone.” (Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/TNS)