Spoilers lie ahead.
Compile a list of archetypical Christmas movies and sooner or later, you’ll have to put Home Alone on it. Whether you love or hate the film that made Macaulay Culkin a one-man cultural trainwreck, you have to admit that the basic concept – lone kid fends off attackers using household goods – is about as perfect a children’s movie as you can conceive. A mixture of wish-fulfilment and slapstick comedy, it’s a premise that’s virtually built to be done again and again.
Clearly someone agrees with this, because there have been four further Home Alone movies since the first was released in 1990. I know, because I was asked to watch them all and report back for Den of Geek. And I’ve done it. I’ve stared into the abyss, and the abyss is full of people slipping on ice, having stuff dropped on their heads and being subjected to extremes of temperature that would drop a grizzly.
But did these movies do their premise justice, or were they just cynical cash-ins designed to squeeze the final drops of money from a once-vital brand? I know. And if you keep reading, soon you will too. We start our five-article series where it all began: the original and (likely) best.
Home Alone (1990)
Do I really need to explain the plot of this movie to anyone? Let’s try and do it fast: when 8-year-old Kevin McCallister is left behind during his family’s Christmas vacation, he uses nothing but his wits and a selection of ordinary household objects to repel a pair of bumbling crooks named Harry and Marv who are trying to invade his home. And so it goes.
Of all of the Home Alone movies, this one is easily the toughest to re-evaluate. Its place in popular culture looms so large, its presence so inextricably linked with the experiences of everyone born in and around the 80s that watching it isn’t like watching a movie. It’s like remembering your own childhood. The bits of it you haven’t repressed, anyway.
Fittingly, there are bits in this film that would make a therapist choke on their pen lid – not least the moment where Kevin flicks through a copy of Playboy owned by his older brother. Hey relax guys, it was the 90s. Just.
One of the first things you’ll notice on rewatching it is that everyone in the McCallister family is an unreasonable dick, Kevin included.
When Kevin wishes his family away you’re right there with him, probably wishing he’d go too. But he doesn’t, and at least he spends the next 90-ish minutes redeeming his brattier moments until he un-wishes them away. This touch of Christmas magic is notably absent from further instalments, probably because children die a lot inside in the space of two years.
Weirdly, although the Home Alone name is largely associated with a barrage of unlikely physical assaults, that stuff doesn’t turn up until quite a long way into the movie. Most of the time, it’s an oddly sincere film. The bulk of it deals with Kevin’s emotional arc towards realising that he does love his family, which is expressed by having him get rapidly bored with the Dionysian excesses of a boundary-free existence. You can sort of understand why Michael Jackson was into it.
In a way, that’s the stuff I actually liked most. The wish-fulfilment of being a kid in charge of your own life, rather than the aspirational attempt at fending off attackers. It’s a strange film to watch now. It’s from the pre-Pixar age, when comedies aimed at children assumed that parents would be better entertained by the emotion of the piece rather than patterning a character after Woody Allen to the bafflement of 8-year-olds everywhere (though when John Candy turns up, it’s clear he’s ad-libbing his way to some genuinely hilarious moments that the film could’ve done with a little more of).
On a script level, it’s easily the tightest of the five. Kevin’s home, alone, within about 15 minutes of the film starting. The series of unlikely events required to get him to that point operates like a kind of morbid clockwork. After that point pretty much everything he does in the movie is designed to play into the denouement, either in emotional or practical terms. If he releases a tarantula in Act One, you know it’s coming back in Act Three (Chekov’s Tarantula, screenwriting fans). The majority of jokes aren’t really up to any kind of adult standard, but they’re quotable enough for kids. The stakes are low (Harry and Marv just want to knock off the house) but relatable. In a way, you have to admire its economy.
At various points during this movie I found myself reminded of Kafka’s novel, The Trial. Kevin finds himself at odds with a machine he can’t comprehend – in this case, the machinery of adulthood, rather than the machinery of the State – and he goes through various means to try and deal with it. First, he rages against it. Then he tries to accept it. As his efforts fail, he turns at last to religion. The narrative is aimless and driven by external forces, and despite all his apparent agency he’s at the mercy of larger entities. Unlike Josef K., Kevin manages to escape his Mephistophelian nightmare with paint pots and marbles and gratuitous violence, which is probably where the similarities end. All things considered, it seems unlikely that John Hughes had any of this in mind when he was writing it.
Ultimately, it’s a movie that does deserve its reputation. The script is rich with theme and invention. The cast is brilliantly-assembled, and even though he’s irritating at times the star quality of Culkin is undeniable. Those old enough to look deeper into its themes will find that it’s a movie about loneliness, particularly the loneliness of the season.
Most crucially, when Kevin and his mother are finally reunited you do actually feel for them. The comedy will bounce off any remotely sophisticated adult, but the emotional beats puncture even as cynical a hide as mine. Because haven’t we all felt home alone at some point?
First Kill: An iron falls on Marv’s head from several storeys up. He MIGHT survive. But I doubt it.
Gratuitous references to previous movies: N/A. This is the one that sets them all up. And to be fair, it’s part of the film’s genius that it’s littered with scenes so vivid and memorable that later movies are able to mine them for ever-diminishing returns.
Schmaltz level: Quite high. Hits a peak during the scene where Kevin looks through a window and sees a happy family celebrating Christmas together, then goes to church and makes friends with the old guy everyone thinks is a murderer, but who is actually estranged from his son. It really, REALLY wants you to cry during this stuff.
Tree decoration scene: Kevin decorates the tree alone, thinking he wished his family away. SOB. When his mother comes home, she notices that he’s done it and wells up with a mixture of pride and sympathy. SOB UPON SOB.
Is anyone home alone in this movie?: Well, yeah. Basically the whole thing takes place when he is home alone. There are fewer than 20 minutes total when Kevin has no friendly presence in the house with him.
Genital injury: Harry gets shot in the groin with an air rifle. He’s definitely castrated. No wonder he’s so angry.
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