Skip to main content

It’s Santy Clause… and his elf.

Home Alone
(1990)

(SPOILERS) A lot of the goodwill Home Alone engendered was subsequently undone by the ubiquity of Macaulay Culkin, who stopped being wide-eyed and cute at probably about the time the immediately diminishing returns of the 1992 sequel kicked in. But he’s perfectly placed here, in what was the biggest surprise smash of its year (one that included several who-knews such as Ghost and Dances with Wolves), even if its biggest selling point, the Tom and Jerry abuse inflicted on robbers Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern is back ended to the point where you might accuse the trailer makers of wilful misselling.


It’s easy to rag on former child stars, even more so when the two most recent high-profile ones (Culkin and Haley Joel Osment) have been consigned to the backburner in adulthood. In his first couple of movies, though (his calling card was an interrogation of John Candy in Uncle Buck), Culkin was a genuinely likeable presence, and in Home Alone he’s only occasionally undone by John Hughes’ inability to resist Bueller-ing him up (the hairstyling in the mirror is straight out of that movie, as are some of the quips), so leading him into the precarious territory of precocious rather than unspoiled. It’s no small feat for a pint-sized performer to carry a comedy, but Culkin manages it; the longueurs of the first half are entirely down to Columbus failing to take out the scissors, rather than a problem with his lead (an inability to edit would also affect his next big foray into the world of child leads, Harry Potter).


Columbus got the gig after Hughes took pity on him being fired over clashing with the notoriously difficult Chevy Chase on the Hughes-scripted and produced – so he probably could have stood his ground with Chevy if he’d wanted to – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (one of the festive box office hits of the previous year, although nothing like on this scale), and as much as he’s an anonymous presence, he’s entirely serviceable. He doesn’t quite have the eye or sure rhythm for slapstick Hughes showed in his own directorial efforts, and he spends too much time with the Paris-bound family and building Kevin up pre-home invasion; if Home Alone had been as tight (and stylish) as the not dissimilarly injurious Mousehunt a few years later, it might have been a true gem, rather than just a likeable festive diversion.


Kate McCallister: Maybe you should ask Santa for a new family.

It’s notable how careful Hughes is to thread a homely moral through the picture, though, before getting down to the ultraviolence; Kevin wishes his family away after an altercation with his insufferable extended family (including short-tempered Uncle Frank, snooty – or is that snotty? – sister Linnie (“You know, Kevin, you’re what the French call les incompetents”) and brutish Buzz (“I wouldn’t let you sleep in my room if you were growing on my ass”), but he’s soon repentant, as are all kids in a similar position (except they’re usually wishing their parents were outright dead).


Hughes also navigates the treacherous territory of having Kevin’s parents accidentally leave him at home without indicting them for it and making it feasible (“John really filled in every possible logic hole, and the audience always bought it” effused Columbus). Heard and O’Hara do much to sell this too, his nonchalance over-compensating for her nervousness, and then, when the mistake is recognised, those she encounters – including John Candy – making her feel truly dreadful. O’Hara’s slightly too highly-strung interactions as she tries to make a connection home are perfectly played.


Checkout Woman: Where’s your mom?
Kevin: In the car.
Checkout Woman: Where’s your father?
Kevin: He’s at work.
Checkout Woman: What about your brothers and sisters?
Kevin: I’m an only child.
Checkout Woman: Where do you live?
Kevin: I can’t tell you that.
Checkout Woman: Why not?
Kevin: Because you’re a stranger.

Then there’s the actually delivery of the moral, which for all that I’m a cynic about these things when they play up the schmaltz, is pretty well done. Due credit in that regard to the underplaying of Old Man Marley (aka “The Shovel Slayer”) by Roberts Blossom, leading Culkin through a scene that might easily have seemed rather trite. It’s interesting that Hughes flips Kevin’s earlier smartass, quick-fire retorts to the supermarket cashier about strangers, proving him wrong in the context of friendship with a sinister old man.


In contrast, one of my bugbears with the picture is that John Williams’ score is just that bit too much, falling into the trap of leading by the nose he often inflicts on Spielberg’s lesser efforts. Columbus wanted Bruce Boughton (who scored the Columbus-scripted Young Sherlock Holmes) but he was busy with The Rescuers Down Under. He was surprised to get Williams, regarding it as something of a coup, but the consequence is an overdose of the twinkly-treacly when a more restrained hand might have played up the irreverence and dialled down the “wonder”.


Harry: Santy don’t visit to funeral homes, little buddy.

At least Williams doesn’t undermine the comedy, though, and that’s crucial. If Hughes was right to suggest Culkin for the lead, Columbus came up trumps with Daniel Stern (Marv) and Joe Pesci (Harry). Reportedly, they played it broad because they thought it was just a kids’ film no one would see, but that seems unlikely given over-the-top is exactly what the roles required (and, if Pesci really didn’t care, he wouldn’t have avoided Culkin on set, intending to make him think he really was mean – he should have just forced him to watch Goodfellas – and probably wouldn’t have bit him).


Johnny: Keep the change, ya filthy animal!

The studious ineptitude of Harry and Marv is necessary for a child’s ingenuity to work (killjoy Roger Ebert complained about a plot “so implausible”, it made it hard for him to care about Kevin, which was really entering into the spirit of the thing). We see a test run with a hapless pizza delivery guy fooled by Kevin working the playback of a video of Angels with Filthy Souls (“Leave it on the doorstep and get the hell out of here”), but it takes a truly dense guy like Marv to believe someone has actually been shot in the McAllister residence (by a rival gang, no less).


Harry: I think we’re getting scammed by a kindygartner.

Kevin duly graduates from merely pulling the wool over burglars’ eyes through puppetry to full on GBH. He’s a junior Charles Bronson in Death Wish dispensing vigilante justice, a little Johnny McClane going Die Hard in a family home. Or Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs with a blowtorch instead of animal traps. One can find numerous pieces on the lines of “What if Home Alone’s violence was real” or adding blood to footage to show how messy the last half hour would actually get, suggesting the picture’s violence was sick and sadistic, but it’s kind of stating the – bleeding – obvious. Of course, it is (the one that always makes me wince is the crowbar applied to Harry’s chest). Kids (and some adults) love that kind of thing. You might reason that making the leap from Tom and Jerry or Road Runner (Stern even looks a bit like Wylie E Coyote) to live action is to blame for this sometimes stony-faced mirthlessness, but those cartoons have also had their fair share of “inappropriate” charges levelled at them. The only surprise is that studios didn’t see the potential for further forays into extreme slapstick violence, outside of the Farrelly Brothers; they may have been partly side-tracked by the Culkin factor, but there’s also the sad fact that very few comedy directors are also visually inspired directors.


Marv: It’s Santy Clause… and his elf.

Most viewers, at any rate, were on board with the patently absurd exaggeration on display, so weren’t all that perturbed by a couple of hardened criminals (the Wet Bandits, thanks to Marv’s calling card of leaving all the taps on in their victims’ houses) threatening to murder Kevin, and “snap off your cojones and boil them in motor oil”, not when he’s shooting them in the balls, in the face, icing steps so they repeatedly fall flat on their backs, dropping irons on their heads, burning their hands with red-hot door knobs, playing havoc with their feet on stairs painted with pitch and plugged with nails, applying blow torches to their heads and baubles to already perforated feet (very Die Hard), causing them to trip up on toy cars (in synchronised fashion) and sending paint pots (full ones) swinging at their skulls.


Harry: Why the hell did you take your shoes off?
Marv: Why the hell are you dressed as a chicken?

Culkin may have wrong-footed studios into thinking he would supply them with an instant goldmine, but it’s Pesci and Stern who make the movie. They’re perfect cartoon villains and also apt to give good improv (the chicken line is Stern’s). All three would be back for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (the “can’t be bothered” title says it all) two years later, by which point Mac was already outgrowing his initial appeal (its more the surprise he managed to hang in there for another two years after that).


The real legacy of Home Alone is its sleeper success, though. It was the golden egg that kept on giving, a paltry $18m price tag (and Warner Bros put it into turnaround before Fox picked it up!) generating nearly half a billion dollars globally (and, despite its festive setting, remaining in the US Top 10 until late April 1991). Back in 1990! Its US take was the equivalent of $600m today, inflation-adjusted. I’m not convinced by William Goldman’s suggestion it spawned the phrase “Home Aloned” for movies where a single picture crushes the success of all contenders in its path, though (apart from anything else, during the period of its release hits like Dances with Wolves and Kindergarten Cop made a mint – and Goldman’s Misery – accompanied, as always, a series of underperformers because they stank, such as Three Men and a Little Lady, Look Who’s Talking Too and Bonfire of the Vanities). Particularly since the converse can be true (the mega-hit instead feeds interest in surrounding pictures, as happened with Avatar). It’s nevertheless easy to forget that such an innocuous movie became such a monster. That’s the devastating combination of Christmas and extreme violence for you.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…