I have some strange connections to the Chris Columbus-directed, John Hughes-produced 1990 holiday classic Home Alone. As a child of the mid-80s, the film was obviously a VHS and HBO staple growing up, but these connections weren’t created until later in my life. The McCallister house is about a 10 minute drive from where I currently live in the northern suburbs of Chicago. The young girl who plays Old Man Marley’s granddaughter [the one who sings like an angel near the end of the film] was a founding member of Spicy Clamato, the college improv team I was apart of for four years while I was in school. Perhaps my favorite connection comes during the scene where Kevin attempts to buy a toothbrush, asking the old woman at the cash register if it is approved by the American Dental Association. My job in real life is at this organization, where part of my duties involve the Seal of Acceptance that Kevin should be able to easily find on the packaging. OK, so maybe these perceived connections are tangential at best, but they give me an extra bit of joy every time I rewatch Home Alone around this time of the year.
The opening sequence, the night before the extended McCallister family are making a transatlantic trip, is a beautiful bit of hectic filmmaking. Seemingly dozens of little brats are running around, with no one to greet the policeman waiting in the foyer or pay the pizza kid. In the middle of it all is our hero, the 8-year-old smartass Kevin, who absolutely hates his entire family. His older brother and cousins pick on him [for some reason instead of picking on cousin Fuller, who we can all agree is a total dweeb] and the adults aren’t any better [especially uncle Frank who has no qualms calling the kid a jerk]. We can all relate to Kevin at this time of the year when we’re shoved into large family gatherings. Tensions are sure to arise. And enjoying a staycation all alone sure seems a lot more appealing than a trip to France with ten other people.
Once his family has “disappeared” we see just what Kevin would do in this newly perfect world. First, he goes through his older brother Buzz’s treasure trove, with more interest in the fire crackers than the nudie magazine. Next, he makes a gigantic ice cream sundae and kicks his feet up for a nice and nasty film noir [you know, as kids do], exclaiming “Guys I’m eating junk and watching rubbish, you better come out and stop me!” All through these scenes, we learn what kind of kid Kevin is—his sarcastic and self-aware behavior [even a little meta with some direct address to the camera] is difficult for his square family members to understand, and thus he is ostracized. But he is exactly the kind of kid that 6-year-old Aaron Pinkston, and I presume many others, wanted to be.
Here’s as good a time as any to praise Macauley Culkin’s performance, for which he earned a surprising Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. Like many grown former child stars, Culkin has become a tabloid joke. We selfishly didn’t want him to grow up; the version as Kevin is perfect and iconic and 8-years-old forever. Yeah, I get that Kevin is maybe a bit too precarious, especially when he starts doling out wisdom to another grieving character. Sometimes he acts like a kid full of fear and mischievousness and other times he acts too far above his age, with a little too much smarm and ingenuity. He may even be a touch annoying. No one could think of all of those perfect booby traps, let alone perform them with a near 100% success rate. But aside from a kid’s film fully revelling in the cathartic joys of a kid taking out two adult criminals, Culkin pulls it off because he is a confident performer and fun to watch.
How could I go this far without mentioning the fantastic team of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as Harry and Marv, aka “The Wet Bandits.” Two of the great character actors of the time, they came to Home Alone on much different tracks. Pesci was mostly known for being a tough in Martin Scorsese movies, leading to his Academy Award win [in the same years as Home Alone, no less] for one of the greatest supporting performances of all time as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. By the time he was Harry Lime, audiences were conditioned to fear this man and not be surprised by any such despicable act he could commit—even hurt an innocent child.
Stern, on the other hand, had more previous credits than his counterpart, but nothing particularly memorable [a prominent role in Barry Levinson’s Diner may be the exception]. Stern is maybe the highlight of the film, a perfect doofus to Pesci’s toned down psychopath. His physical comedy chops are brutally funny, and increasingly so as his body is torn to shreds in the film’s final act. The back-to-back picture perfect [and very different!] screams of Marv stepping through the nail and Harry getting his head blow-torched get me every time. And how about the unforgettable reaction to Chekhov's tarantula?
No matter how many times I’ve seen Home Alone, I am surprised by how little of the film is the amazing house raid, which doesn’t begin until nearly 75 minutes in and lasts about 20 or so. This might be because of how completely stuffed this section is—trap after trap, pratfall after pratfall, delicious scream after delicious scream in oppressively rapid succession. It is the most purely enjoyable section of that film for that reason. Amidst the cartoon-level violence and improbability of it all, the dramatic stakes the film is trying to build [don’t forget, through all of this, Catherine “The Great” O’Hara is trying desperately to get back to her son] have been burned, trampled, and cut up as much as its antagonists. I can’t help but be OK with it as I’m laughing just like the 6-year-old version of me.
I don’t really consider myself a nostalgic person. I didn’t grow up with Star Wars or Indiana Jones or any of the other cornerstone films and franchises that those my age did. There weren’t any films that I had to rent every weekend or ruined on VHS for overplaying [OK, I do remember renting The Sandlot more than a few times]. As I grew older, I gravitated toward stranger and more obscure horror and genre films, most have been forgotten. I’m not sure I even watched Home Alone an inordinate number of times. But it has always stuck with me. Whenever I revisit I instantly remember every scene, every great line of dialogue in the way that only comes with connection with a film when you were young. So what if Home Alone’s craft doesn’t exactly merit an “essential” tag, I unabashedly love it. Home Alone 2, on the other hand… yeah, let’s not spend a lot of time on that.
Here's what we'll have for you this week:
- The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 6
- Our thoughts on the "Is Home Alone a Christmas movie?" debate
- Filmography of iconic writer-director John Hughes
- Streaming recs just in time for the holiday weekend
- And more!