Director: Chris Columbus. 20th Century Fox/Hughes Entertainment. (PG).
Producer: John Hughes.
Writer: John Hughes.
Camera: Julio Macat.
Music: John Williams.
Sets: Dan Webster.
Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard, Roberts Blossom, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy, Angela Goethals, Devin Ratray, Gerry Bamman, Kieran Culkin.
Precocious 8 year old Kevin (Culkin) is accidentally left at home on his own during his family’s last minute rush to the airport for a Christmas break in Paris. As he struggles to fend for himself, two inept burglars (Pesci, Stern) attempt to break into his house. Ready for when they return, he sets a series of traps to protect his home.
A film that clearly puts into perspective what the true meaning of Christmas is: cute little kids burning other humans, smashing paint cans over their heads and generally hospitalising them in some indescribably cruel, but at the same time ‘hilarious’ manner. Ho! Ho! Ho! For ’tis the season to call social services?
Culkin went, very quickly, from being the most famous person on the planet to being almost persona non grata as possibly the most annoying child in the world. Despite showing resourceful charm and the cheeky resilience that made Jackies Coogan & Cooper and Shirley Temple into worldwide stars, he also shows the tipping point at which children in movies went from wide-eyed intelligence to smug, self-aggrandising know-it-alls.
Writer/Producer Hughes gave the world the ‘Brat Pack’ in the eighties so Culkin was his gift for the next movie generation (Thanks Unlce John!). He sits squarely away from the director’s chair on this occasion, handing over the reigns to Columbus, but his style is imprinted on every frame: kids in control, children as resourceful people, parents sidelined, broad slapstick comedy.
By this time the prolific Hughes, whose films had defined a decade, was receding more and more from public view (his last film as a director was the lamentable Curly Sue in 1991) but he could still churn out blockbuster hits, which Home Alone went on to become, incredibly spawning 4 sequels.
What Hughes was always a genius at doing was reducing his writing to the worldview of a child without ever patronising his key audience. Home Alone is probably the most grown up film for very young children he ever made, if you consider how uniquely independent Culkin’s character is, the intellectual and physical power he wields over the burglars trying to break in and the free reign he has over a dominion that is usually the sole preserve of the parent – the house. I can clearly remember, aged 11 when the film was first released, how completely jealous I (and a few of my classmates) were to see a peer fending for himself, fighting of the baddies and having a blast in the process.
It helps that what Hughes does is never once let us forget that the lengths Culkin’s character goes to to protect his home and possessions are only half believable. Exaggerated antics, but still rooted in the reality of what a child with very little concept of what pain is could do to someone with everyday household objects and a vicious imagination. That the ‘comedy’ in this slapstick house of horrors works is due in no small part to the fantastic orchestration by Columbus, the screenwriter of Gremlins (1984), who clearly was making a career at causing ultimate mayhem at Christmas. Columbus ensures that the ingenuity of Kevin’s revenge is never once ridiculous.
The other side of the coin that makes these sequences so guiltily enjoyable is in the playing of the villains by Pesci and Stern. These two deal admirably with the punishment meted out to them. Pesci would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work this year, but for a very different role in a markedly different movie, as the unhinged, unpredictable and foul-mouthed Tommy DeVito in Scorsese’s gangster epic Goodfellas.