Sunday, June 19, 2016

"$uccessfu!" Films: "Home Alone" (1990)


There's a scene in the 1989 John Candy vehicle Uncle Buck where Macaulay Culkin peaks through a mail slot and interrogates a potential babysitter. This scene reportedly inspired writer-director John Hughes (who had been transitioning from teenage comedies, like Sixteen Candles [1984] and Ferris Bueller's Day Off [1986], to adult comedies, like Planes, Trains & Automobiles [1987] and She's Having a Baby [1988]) to pen and produce another family vehicle, this time with Culkin in mind as an eight-year-old boy who is accidentally left behind by his family when they head to Paris for Christmas vacation and proceeds to defend his house from two bumbling burglars. This high-concept plot that became Home Alone soon became a wildly commercial success and a pop-culture phenomenon when it was released in November of 1990. (For the record, it stayed in the top ten at the box-office for 12 straight weeks following its initial release, and it has since held its place as the highest-grossing live-action comedy of all-time.) The rest is history.

Grounded to the third floor the night before his family leaves, Kevin wishes he didn't have a family. Despite his mother’s near-warning, Kevin avoids the “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” notion. From the opening credits, this juxtaposition of a scary atmosphere (the idea of being left home alone) mixed with the holidays is a bit creepy at times. It’s as if we’re being told a scary ghost story, as well as a funny and amusing one. There’s even the subplot involving the possible murderer-neighbor next door. (One scene, in particular, used to scare me as a kid. Or maybe it was just Culkin’s reaction in this scene that did so. The advertisements with Culkin’s famous scream a la Edward Munch's aptly-named painting certainly gave me the creeps.)

Yet, unlike director Chris Columbus's previous cult classic Gremlins (1984), this one isn't mean-spirited or nightmarish in terms of it's holiday setting. In fact, the themes here have more to do with holiday memories and the importance of family rather than commercialism or consumerism. In addition, Culkin is agreeably half the reason the film struck a chord with audiences. With enough emphasis on the joys of having a house to himself and eventually realizing that he does miss his family, Culkin carries the film splendidly. Sure, it’s implausible that a kid could do all the things Kevin does, but we still feel for him in a way.


With the holidays in mind, I credit this film for introducing me to several holiday traditions as a child. Certain variations of Christmas songs, such as Chuck Berry’s “Run Run, Rudolph,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” The Drifter’s “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night,” and John Williams' memorable "Somewhere In My Memory," as well as images of the animated version of the Grinch, trigger certain scenes. Such moments include the front yard statue that keeps getting knocked over by the pizza delivery guy, Kevin's mannequin diversion (complete with a life-sized cardboard replica of Michael Jordan) and the bathroom scene complete with the film's iconic image. And as with just about every one of Hughes’ films, his characters break the fourth wall and address the audience (“I made my family disappear,” “This is it! Don’t get scared now.”) Then, of course, there are the famous booby traps.

Home Alone was only the third highest-grossing film worldwide at the time, behind Star Wars (1977) and E.T. (1982), respectfully. Like the previous year’s box-office champ, Batman, the film garnered mixed reviews from critics, and furthermore represented an exponential trend in mass entertainment that would dominate the second-half of the nineties with films like Independence Day (1996) and Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace (1999).


The film's slapstick emphasis, while memorable and often funny, became more extreme in the 1992 sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which many critics bashed as being too “cartoonish” and “sadistic.” I don’t blame them. The sequel, after all, is basically an over-the-top and unnecessary rehash of the first movie. This trend also seemed to suggest that slapstick comedy was a fool-proof formula for box-office success. In fact, Hughes would repeatedly use this formula in many of his later-penned family-comedies throughout the Nineties, particularly Dennis the Menace (1993), Baby’s Day Out (1994), the second sequel Home Alone 3 (1997), and even his remakes of Disney's 101 Dalmatians (1996) and Flubber (1997).

Taking recent tragedies into account, the fake movie-within-the-movie, "Angels With Filthy Souls" (along with Kevin blasting a Red Ryder-style BB gun a la Ralphie Parker) is kind of disturbing. Quotes film critic Leonard Maltin, “the violence (even for a cartoonish farce) is a bit extreme.” Indeed, some of the booby traps (specifically the pasted nail, blow torch, and the heated doorknob) test the film’s PG-rating. Some parents were reportedly upset about such levels of violence, and the stamped “Parental Guidance Suggested” label in poster advertisements was rightfully deserved.

This is not a great movie or a masterpiece, by any means. It does suffer from a few drags, such as when the mom tries to get a flight back home, but always seems to be blocked by full flights. On the other hand, it does remain a classic piece of Nineties nostalgia.


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