Home Alone: A comic version of Straw Dogs or another kiddie comedy from the slush pile?

Macaulay Culkin played the doe-eyed eight-year-old Kevin who is left behind in his Chicago home when his family go on holiday to Paris in ‘Home Alone’ (1990) (Rex Features)
Macaulay Culkin played the doe-eyed eight-year-old Kevin who is left behind in his Chicago home when his family go on holiday to Paris in ‘Home Alone’ (1990) (Rex Features)

It’s the film that smashed box office records and created probably the biggest child star since the heyday of Shirley Temple. It’s the Christmas comedy that stayed in cinemas until way after Easter. Thirty-two years after it was made, it remains cherished and even venerated. Fans make a point of watching it every December. Like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, it’s accepted as a cast-iron Christmas classic. Nonetheless, Home Alone is still a movie that fiercely divides opinion.

Released in US cinemas on 16 November 1990, this is the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), the doe-eyed eight-year-old kid left behind in his Chicago home when his mum, dad, and all his siblings go on holiday to Paris. As the posters proclaimed, this is a “family comedy without the family". In the absence of his loved ones, little Kevin cooks, cleans… and he “kicks some butt".

The Christmas settings, the paean to family values, and Kevin’s delight and terror at being left home alone give the story its magic, and so does the slapstick violence that runs through the latter part of the movie. A pair of bungling burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) are plotting to ransack the house but Kevin is ready for them. He sets up ingenious booby traps all over the house to thwart the hapless Harry and Marv.

Culkin became a global celebrity thanks to Home Alone and its sequels. As Kevin, he was a screen natural, cherubic and charming but with a streak of anarchic mischief which kept the schmaltz at bay. Almost everybody loved him.

Oddly, the one group that really couldn’t stomach the new star or the film was a section of the press. More than three decades on, it is still hard not to be startled by the grudging, Scrooge-like malevolence of many of the early reviews of Home Alone. It’s as if the critics had it in for poor little Kevin just as much as Harry and Marv who, at one stage in the movie, pin the urchin to the door and threaten to burn his head off with a blow torch.

“Children will delight in the subversive activities of the small wimp turned hero. I was pretty revolted myself since I find young Macaulay Culkin a peculiarly repellent child,” one reviewer wrote while summing up the strange effect the actor had on her, causing her to come out in hives. The film was dismissed as just “another kiddie comedy from the slush pile” of its prolific writer-producer John Hughes.

Home Alone failed to win any Oscars and wasn’t nominated in any categories other than Best Original Score and Best Original Song. As the film’s British executive producer Tarquin Gotch points out, Hughes was well accustomed to such slights. “Home Alone was like all of John’s films. John was never given great kudos because he was working in comedy. Comedy is the poor relation when it comes to critics and awards.”

 (Rex Features)
(Rex Features)

The project had its origins in Hughes’s desire to make a seasonal movie. “We had done Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which was based on Thanksgiving, and John said ‘I need a Christmas movie.’ This was his Christmas movie,” Gotch remembers. Hughes then wrote Home Alone in two weeks flat. Exhausted after making several films in a short period of time, he didn’t want to direct it himself and sent the script to Chris Columbus, whose debut feature, Adventures in Babysitting (1987) he had admired.

Home Alone now sits alongside Mary Poppins, Star Wars, Beauty and the Beast, The Avengers, and assorted other family classics and superhero movies on the new Disney + platform. It’s a very strange home for it. The film was made through Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Studios which took the project over after Warner Bros balked at the budget and the risk of having a kid as the star. Fox was acquired by Disney in early 2019. Culkin, therefore, rubs shoulders with Mickey Mouse. This, though, is a long way removed from typical Disney fare.

So how does Home Alone stand up today? As far as mainstream holiday movies go, it still seems surprisingly and refreshingly subversive, a film that flirts with darkness before ending on a bright and redemptive note. It starts as a typical family comedy with the family preparing to go to Paris. The siblings are all bickering with one another. Meals are orgies of spilled coke and half-eaten pizza. Kevin is relentlessly bullied by his abrasive older brother, Buzz (Devin Ratray).

Once he has the house to himself and is bored of gorging himself on junk food, Kevin goes through his family’s private possessions. These include his father’s copy of Playboy that he scrutinises with bewildered curiosity. Again, this is an offbeat touch that a more conventional Disney-style family comedy wouldn’t have included.

The story is fast-moving but initially benign. It’s only later on that the tarantula is released, the burglars step on nails and have irons land on their head.

In spite of the suburban settings, the film has a mythical aspect. Much of Home Alone is shot from the boy’s perspective. Little Kevin is so tiny that his Chicago home seems as vast as a medieval castle, with its basement as huge and as dark as a dungeon.

“From the little guy’s point of view, we wanted everything to feel large, bigger than life,” recalls cinematographer Julio Macat, ASC (American Society of Cinematographers). The sweeping John Williams score adds to the epic feel. The film may have been made 30 years ago, in an era before smartphones and social media, but it doesn’t feel dated in the way so many other movies from the period do. Director Columbus and his collaborators went to exhaustive lengths to make the film lavish, warm, and elegant to give it the same timeless quality that you find in the best Charles Dickens adaptations.

The genius of Culkin’s performance lies in its combination of innocence and aggression. He may look as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth but he takes a sadistic relish in inflicting pain and humiliation on Pesci and Stern. He’s a calculating, middle-class kid from an affluent background. They’re dumb, working-class petty thieves, very severely punished for trying to steal from the rich.

 (Rex Features)
(Rex Features)

As Hughes’s biographer Kirk Honeycutt noted, Home Alone can be viewed as a comic version of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, in which bookish academic Dustin Hoffman protects his home from invaders and shows an unexpected cunning and capacity for violence as he does so. Hughes had worked with Culkin on the John Candy vehicle, Uncle Buck, and knew that the child actor was perfect to play the leading role. Columbus was determined to find his own Kevin and auditioned hundreds of other hopefuls before finally acknowledging that Hughes was right; Culkin would indeed make the ideal Kevin.

This casting was crucial. Kevin had to be endearing or the film would risk alienating audiences. If they thought him a brat, the magic would be sucked out of the story instantly. Pesci lends the film an abrasiveness and comic sourness that undercuts its more sentimental moments. He took the role straight after playing the gangster in Goodfellas. As cinematographer Macat recalls, he initially struggled with a screenplay that didn’t give him the liberty to swear. Expletives were generally an essential part of his armoury.  In Goodfellas, the pint-sized star was calculated to have uttered the word “f***” and its derivatives around 150 times. In Home Alone, for obvious reasons, he’s not allowed to utter it even once. After all, this was a family movie. Nor could he curse off-camera when the child star was on set.

“Pesci’s biggest concern when Macaulay was not around, he would tell us ‘how the f*** am I meant to do this without saying what I want to say’.” recalls Macat. The actor’s solution was to improvise his own lexicon of mumbled, non-offensive swear words – placebos rather than the real thing. He also ramped up the rage.

Home Alone spawned sequels. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992) is rated by its director Columbus as a better film than the original. Macat remembers “pulling out all the stops” to make it work. “It was like our prize for having done a great job. It was like, OK, here’s your trophy, go do it again, try to make it as good as the first one if you can.” Not even the presence of Donald Trump spoiled the experience. The future President engaged in typical screen stealing antics during what was supposed to be the briefest of cameos in the Plaza Hotel. Macat has a photograph of himself and the director looking thoroughly pained at Trump’s presence.

The first film, though, was the one that broke the box office records. Critics then and now may have had their doubts but those who worked on the film have spent years figuring out why it is so enduring. Three decades on, Macat thinks he has cracked the secret of the film’s success.

“We had no idea it would do what it did. I tell you the reason it did what it did now I have been thinking about it for 30 years. It was the fact that the child was empowered to protect his home from the boogeyman, OK. You put that out as an international message, you give a little kid that’s afraid of what is in the closet the power to protect his home, that resonated,” the cinematographer reflects. “The message is what makes the film so special.”

 (Rex Features)
(Rex Features)

Since playing Buzz in Home Alone, actor Devin Ratray has gone on to work with directors like Steven Soderbergh and Alexander Payne but he generally finds that his role as Kevin’s slobbish, barfing, pizza-guzzling brother and tormentor in chief is the one everybody remembers him by. Like Macat, he has his own theories about the movie’s lasting appeal.

“You don’t have to speak a certain language to respond to visual slapstick comedy. That is universal,” Ratray reflects “The fear of being abandoned by your family but also the elation of not having a family, the freedom of not having parents or bullying older siblings; also, every young boy’s fantasy of becoming the protector of the home and out-smarting bad guys coming through the window…it [the film] tapped into everything that children feared and liked on a level where adults liked it as well.”

In other words, Home Alone is a family comedy that appealed to audiences on such a primal level that it made no difference at all that its critical reception was so mixed. That is why millions will be watching it all over again in the coming weeks while new generations of young viewers continue to seek it out and delight in it for the first time.