1990's, A Christmas Carol, catherine o'hara, Chris Columbus, Christmas, christmas carol, christmas classic, Christmas review, christmas song, Christmas star, christmas story, christmas tree, church, classic comedy, Comedy, comedy review, daniel stern, film review, Home Alone, home alone traps, joe pesci, john candy, john heard, john hughes, john williams, Kevin, maculay culkin, marley, mccallister, movie review, old man marley, review, tarantula, trap, traps
See that face smack dab in the middle of the poster there? That’s the face I made when I found out I’d be reviewing one of my favorite Christmas movies (and also when I realized I wouldn’t be publishing it on time; Happy Valentines Day!) Because, honestly, what can I say about Home Alone that hundreds before me already have?
There’s an argument to be made that Home Alone shouldn’t count as a Christmas movie because it’s a story that can be done on any given day of the year – except that Christmas is tied into this film’s very identity. Kevin’s house is full of reds, greens and whites, the soundtrack is stuffed with Christmas tunes, even beloved classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street are playing whenever a TV is turned on. Add themes of family and togetherness and a magical score by John Williams, and you’ve got a movie with Christmas in its DNA.
While Home Alone didn’t impress critics upon release, it made enough bank that it held the title of highest-grossing comedy of all time until 2011. It’s entered the pop culture lexicon not just here in the states but abroad. The film’s release in most former Soviet-occupied countries aligned with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is so tied to that feeling of holiday cheer and nostalgia for a monumental positive change that it’s broadcast with the same heartfelt frequency as It’s A Wonderful Life in America. “It’s not Christmas without Kevin” has become something of a popular slogan for most stations that air it. But why does this simple story retain so much of its appeal 30 years later?
Our opening credits play over the McCallister clan and their extended family as they prepare for their Christmas trip from Chicago to Paris. There’s quite a few familiar names in the crew from director Chris Columbus (who you might remember as the director of the first two Harry Potter movies) to screenwriter John Hughes of Ferris Bueller and Breakfast Club fame. Then there’s the editor, Raj Ganal. Hmm, now where have I heard that name before?
Well it’s like Kevin Smith said, in Hollywood the only way you can fail is up. It certainly explains some of the more interesting editing choices.
One figure observing the chaos is a police officer, Harry (Joe Pesci), who’s checking in on houses around the neighborhood to make sure they’re taking precautions against possible home invasions. He goes largely ignored by the family but does learn from the matriarch Kate (Catherine O’Hara) that they’ll be gone by tomorrow. Her youngest son, Kevin (Maculay Culkin) takes careful notice of Harry’s suspicious smile.
I guess now’s a good a time to talk about Kevin himself.
Anyway, people seem to forget that Kevin succeeds in being a three-dimensional and relatable character outside of that one look. I wholeheartedly attribute this to two things: Hughes’ writing (the guy understood children and teens like few could) and Maculay’s acting. Chris Columbus is usually hit or miss when it comes to directing child actors, but he scored a hole-in-one with Maculay Culkin. Nothing feels phoned in; he gets that right mix of gleeful mischief, naivete, terror and blunt honesty that makes Kevin feel like a real kid. His cleverness is established early on, though he doesn’t come across as a miniature adult. I’ll touch more on his arc later, but for now I’ll say the kid’s all right.
Kevin gets a little underfoot while Kate her husband Peter (John Heard) make some last-minute travel preparations. He’s foisted off on a succession of family members as they’re getting ready for the trip. This opening tries to establish that Kevin is a selfish brat, which, yeah, leaving your toys lying around and using your dad’s new fishhooks to make ornaments without asking him is a dumb thing to do, except…well…Kevin’s family is kind of awful. I feel more sympathy towards him than anyone else who has to deal with him. They repeatedly treat him like something that was dragged in beneath their shoes. It’s one thing with his older brother Buzz, he acts like a bully towards everyone. His other siblings and relatives, on the other hand, go out of their way to insult him when he asks for help packing or tries to speak up for himself, his parents do nothing to stop them, and they make him share his bed with his little cousin Fuller, who has next to no bladder control.
Then there’s Uncle Frank.
Yeah. Uncle Frank’s THAT family member, the one selfish bastard who’s quicker to offer a complaint or tone-deaf remark than be of any comfort or assistance (he’s also more than a bit of cheapskate, foisting the pizza bill on his brother-in-law and trying to sneak silverware and champagne flutes from the plane into his wife’s bag). It’s telling that the Wet Bandits, the villains of this picture, are more likable than he is. In fact, thanks to Frank’s irredeemable asshole nature, there was a long-running rumor that HE was the one who hired them to hit up Kevin’s house in the original draft of the script! In conclusion Your Honor, we may stan a lot of things about Home Alone here on this blog, but Uncle Frank is not one of them.
Speaking of buzzkills, Buzz shares a bit of local lore with Kevin and his cousins. The old man next door, who goes by the name of Marley, is supposedly a serial killer known as The South Bend Shovel Slayer. He only comes out at night to shovel and salt the sidewalks; according to Buzz, he’s killed with that shovel and could very well kill again. One look from him as he’s out on his beat is enough to send the boys fleeing from his sight.
The tension between Kevin and his family comes to a head as they sit down for pizza. Everyone quickly gobbles up all the plain cheese pies, leaving none for Kevin. Buzz especially relishes in stealing the last slice from his little brother and pretending to throw it back up for him. Kevin lashes out at Buzz and causes a domino effect of spilled soda bottles and upended family members. He barely gets a chance to explain himself thanks to Uncle Frank shouting him down. Kate drags Kevin upstairs and tells him that he can spend the night alone in the attic bedroom until he’s ready to apologize to everyone. The two argue and Kevin yells that he wishes he wasn’t a part of this family. Kate warns him that he’d feel pretty miserable if he woke up alone in the world, but Kevin only doubles down on his anti-family stance. As he drifts off to sleep, he wishes they would all would vanish from his life.
To Raj Ganal’s credit, the transitional scene of the gathering clouds outside the McCallister house as everyone sleeps successfully conveys this sense of unease and mystery. When coupled with John Williams’ unusually eerie music, it hints that maybe there is a bit of magic at work after all. A gust of wind blows a tree branch into the power lines, knocking out the electricity and phones. The McCallisters sleep in thanks to the alarms not going off and wake up woefully unprepared for their taxi to the airport. Nobody notices Kevin isn’t among them in the rush to depart, and a Randy Beaman-type kid bothering the taxi drivers accidentally gets roped into the head count, leaving everyone to assume he’s there. Plus, Kevin’s plane ticket and passport were unwittingly thrown out with the mess made at dinner the prior evening, so it’s not like they’re able to check early on and see that he isn’t with them. In any other movie this would all feel extremely contrived (the sequel is unfortunately guilty of this thanks to trying to make us buy that the same thing could happen twice) but here it goes over as smooth as clockwork.
The McCallisters, none the wiser that one of their own is missing, speed to O’Hare in less than thirty minutes and board the plane seconds before it takes off. Ah, the good old days before mandated security checks that last as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. By the time Kevin emerges from the attic, his family’s already up in the air. There’s no one home, just him and a creepy monster-like furnace in the basement. The cars are still in the garage. There are no notes left behind or signs that anyone was there before. So Kevin comes to the most logical conclusion an eight year-old can make:
Kevin joyfully spends the day doing what most children left alone for the very first time would and breaks loose. He pigs out on junk food, runs around like a maniac, sleds down the stairs, and messes up the house with particular disregard towards Buzz’s room. Kevin lifts some handy items from his brother’s stash including firecrackers, some cash, and a BB-gun which he has some fun practicing with. He also accidentally frees Buzz’s pet tarantula and uncovers a photo of his lovely girlfriend, Woof.
Now it’s true that much of Home Alone could be classified as wish-fulfillment for children. The majority of the first act is dedicated to showing how much of Kevin’s home life sucks and saying “Hey kids, isn’t this thing awesome? Don’t you wish you could be Kevin?” once his wish comes true. But unlike most films that pander to children in that way, Home Alone shows that there’s a downside to this newfound freedom and seclusion, resulting in Kevin maturing from a reckless and impulsive child to a slightly more sensible and wiser young boy. It happens so gradually that you barely notice, but it’s there. That turn begins when he puts on a movie he was barred from viewing earlier, “Angels With Dirty Faces”. It was made explicitly for Home Alone, but what little we see is so good at passing for a real gangster movie from the 30s that for years people thought it actually was one. As it turns out, Kevin was forbidden from watching it for a very good reason; the sudden violence is enough to scare him senseless. The scene also establishes that despite their arguing earlier, Kevin and his mother share an intuitive bond that transcends the usual love between a mother and child into a sort of sixth sense. At the moment he cries out for her, Kate bolts awake in terror realizing she’s left Kevin behind.
Once the McCallisters land in France, they hurry to the nearest phone to call Kevin. The lines are still down around the house so they can’t reach him directly. The police are less than helpful (surprise, surprise) but they promise to send someone to the house to check up on him. It’s not enough for Kate, though. Her son needs her, and she’s desperate to atone for what she’s done to him. The next flight to Chicago isn’t for another week, however. While the rest of the family settles into their cushy Paris digs, Kate soldiers on homeward, hopping from airport to airport in a desperate gamble to reach Kevin before Christmas.
Kate isn’t the only one with eyes on Kevin’s house, though. We learn that Harry, the cop from earlier, is actually a crook posing as an officer to learn which homes will be empty so he and his dim-witted partner Marv (Daniel Stern) can rob them. He has everything perfectly timed, right down to when the automatic lights switch on. Out of all the homes on the block, however, Kevin’s house is the “silver tuna”. Before the robbers can make their move, Kevin sees their silhouettes through the curtains and flips on the back door light. The two flee in confusion, and for the first time Kevin realizes being home alone may have its drawbacks. He still refuses to let his fear control him and he emerges from the house declaring he’s not afraid of anything – though that doesn’t very last long.
Kevin ducks under the bed and is too scared to answer the door when a real cop comes around, meaning no updates for his family. Kate proceeds on her journey while the rest of the McCallisters (except Buzz and Uncle Frank) continue to worry about him. Peter leaves a message on the answering machine of one of the neighbors informing them about the situation. Unfortunately, Harry and Marv overhear the recording while robbing that very house. Their doubts about the McCallister place being inhabited are allayed.
Oh, and it’s at this point Marv shows off his habit of leaving the water running in every house they steal from in a woefully misguided attempt at a calling card. At least the movie itself recognizes how shortsighted and imbecilic his gimmick is through Harry’s snark. The only terror that the name “The Wet Bandits” would inspire is the thought of the massive water bill that comes with being targeted by them.
Kevin begins to take some responsibility by going grocery shopping, doing laundry (where he confronts the monster furnace and overcomes his fear of it), and taking care of his personal hygiene (which leads into the famous scream when he tries aftershave for the first time). His quest for a toothbrush goes well until Old Man Marley gets in line behind him. Kevin is so terrified that he runs out of the store without paying, is accused of shoplifting, and has to run from the police. And as if his day couldn’t get any worse, Harry almost hits him with his truck. Kevin recognizes Harry from his gold tooth, and Harry is sure he’s seen Kevin before, even if he can’t recall where. Kevin hides out in a church’s nativity display when the bandits try to inconspicuously follow him. As he dashes home, he vows he’ll be ready for the crooks when they come back. That night, Harry and Marv return to find a rocking holiday party going on. The guests are made up of mannequins, cardboard standees and other attic bric-a-brac brought to life by Kevin’s ingenuity.
The burglars are suspicious, but they don’t want to take any chances and drive away. Kevin is spared for one more night. He celebrates with a delicious cheese pizza all for himself (courtesy of tricking the same obnoxious delivery boy from earlier by playing selective parts of Angels With Dirty Faces), though he begins to miss his family.
As for Kate, she’s crossed half the globe, sold all of her jewelry for plane tickets and is running on three hours of sleep. When she arrives in Scranton on Christmas Eve, she’s informed that there’s nothing available and begins to break down. I’ve reviewed a few movies featuring Catherine O’Hara before, but I feel like I’ve neglected to state how great an actress she is. People are only beginning to appreciate her these days thanks to Schitt’s Creek (and those dumb clickbait articles that make the obvious connection between Moira Rose and Kate McCallister) though she’s always had an amazing range. Kate is an excellent showcase of both her comic and dramatic chops. When she goes into overly anxious mother mode, by God does she nail it. Hilarious as it is to see her so uptight and over-the-top in her appeals to others for help, she’s so wracked with guilt that it’s impossible to not sympathize with her. I don’t have kids, but I’m sure any parent put in Kate’s shoes would be just as frantic as she is:
I have been awake for almost sixty hours. I am tired and I am dirty. I am trying to get home to my eight year-old son. And now that I’m this close, you’re telling me it’s hopeless? No. No, no, no, no, wait – this is CHRISTMAS! The season of perpetual hope! I don’t care if I have to get on your runway and hitchhike! If it costs me everything I own, if I have to sell my soul to the devil himself, I am going to get home to my son.
Luckily, Kate’s prayers are immediately answered by an unlikely – but very welcome – familiar face.
Aw, good ol’ John Candy. You could always count on him to make you smile. John appeared in the film as a favor to John Hughes, shooting his scenes in one go in just under twenty-four hours straight. His dialogue was also completely improvised; the only prompt he was given was to go up to Catherine O’Hara and say “Excuse me, I’m…” And so we get Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest and the unsung hero of the picture. He offers to give Kate a ride with him and his band in a rented-out truck and drop her off in Chicago. John and Catherine play off each other remarkably, no doubt thanks to their time together on SCTV. Every line they share is gold, from Gus trying to build himself up (“Very big in Sheboygan”) to the hilariously dark funeral home story. It’s a perfect way to keep us entertained as Kate gets that much closer to home.
…Almost too perfect, the more I think about it
In fact, didn’t Kate proclaim seconds before Gus popped in that she’d willingly enter a Faustian bargain to reunite with Kevin?
Meanwhile, Harry and Marv continue stalking around Kevin’s house. Kevin happens to be near the TV when Marv tries to sneak a peek through the back door, so we’re treated to a third round of Angels With Dirty Faces.
This time Kevin lights up the firecrackers as the machine guns go off, scaring Marv into believing he’s overheard a mob hit. He relays his findings to Harry, but Harry urges him to stick around so they can find out who’s trying to claim their turf. They later spy Kevin cutting down part of a pine tree outside in order to set up a little Christmas tree for himself. Though Kevin pretends he’s not alone in the house, Harry and Marv aren’t fooled this time. Kevin hears them plan to return later that evening to finish the job.
As night falls, Kevin pays a visit to “one of Santa’s helpers”, and asks him to tell the real Santa that the only thing he wants for Christmas is to bring back his family (and also Uncle Frank if the polar bears aren’t too hungry). I’ve got to give credit to the helper, he’s shown to be an overworked, unappreciated employee who’s being held up from his Christmas party by this one kid, but he still takes the time to listen him and try to comfort him.
Kevin trudges home, taunted by the sight of happy families celebrating the holidays together in their homes. Adding to this sense of isolation is the movie’s lovely theme song, “Somewhere in My Memory” kicking into high gear. It’s a lovely tune, tapping into the warmth and nostalgia that comes with the season, though here it only serves to accent Kevin’s loneliness. I’d love to say more but Sideways did a great video about it and why Home Alone’s soundtrack works as a whole so I recommend you check that out instead. Speaking of, Kevin passes the church again and is drawn in by the music.
Hand to God, Kevin in the church is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. There’s an understated awe in how it’s filmed, reflecting Kevin’s view of this sacred place on one of the most spiritual nights of the year – but the distance between him and the peace this sanctuary offers is a palpable one. He’s an outsider seeking refuge, but he can’t quite connect with his surroundings as he reflects on how he treated his family. The look on Culkin’s face says it all without him having to speak a word. He just sits there in contemplative solitude as the sound of the children’s choir washes over him. I’m inclined to believe that Kevin was dragged to service on Christmas Eve like so many other kids, myself included, but now, even though there’s no one forcing him to go, he’s here because it’s the one tenuous connection to his family right now.
As Kevin sits and ponders, he notices Marley sitting across the way. The old man gets up and does the very last thing Kevin expects him to: he warmly wishes him a Merry Christmas and asks if he can sit with him.
The two make light conversation and Kevin comes to realize that this supposedly scary man is really anything but that. They actually have a bit in common, namely familial troubles have got them both down. Marley’s come to church to watch his granddaughter sing in the choir; it’s the only way he can see her since his own falling-out with his family. Marley doesn’t go into specifics, just that he had a fight with his son and is no longer welcome, but that’s all we need to know. He wants to make amends, yet the fear of rejection holds him back. It’s this right here that sold me on the theory that Home Alone is secretly a retelling of A Christmas Carol. Kevin is Scrooge, wishing to be left alone on Christmas. His flashbacks to how terribly his family treated him after they leave and shaped how he is now is a glimpse into Christmas Past. The Present comes in the form seeing others making merry from a lonely distance. And who better to warn him of a dire future alone than an old man named Marley?
And I just say how great Robert Blossom is as Marley? He’s silent and menacing in every appearance he’s made before to the point where you almost start to believe the stories about him. Now we see how much of that was projected by Kevin’s imagination, that this is a vulnerable, tragic man you feel for. The way he talks to Kevin is not as a senior lecturing a child, but as an equal. They’re both aware that they’re going through similar struggles, and it’s easy to see Kevin becoming Marley someday if he doesn’t do something about it. Marley’s common sense and Kevin’s unfiltered truths open each other’s eyes and leave them with much to think about.
This scene illustrates a core theme of Home Alone that’s sorely overlooked: fear, and how people deal with it at different ages. Kate is driven by fear, the fear that she’s either lost or will lose her son if she can’t make it home on time. She reacts by defying common sense and buying her way across the country when she can and relying on the kindness of strangers when she can’t. The bandits try to use fear to intimidate Kevin while they themselves labor under the fear that any unforeseen misstep will ruin their heist. Kevin deals with a new variety of fears that come with his situation and having to grow up so quickly on his own. He cites his experience with the furnace as an example of confronting his fears to Marley. He couldn’t have done his laundry if he didn’t try going into the basement, and soon learned that he was worried over nothing. That, and he discovers through Marley that adults, for all their experience and wisdom, can still be afraid sometimes; that a spooky cellar is small potatoes compared to a lifetime of loneliness, but both can be vanquished if you make an effort.
Having made his peace with Marley and God, Kevin hurries home to prepare for the bandits’ arrival.
John Williams’ music has defined the emotions we derive from the cinema-going experience, from the foreboding strings of Jaws to the brassy wonder of Superman – but with a few exceptions, he has never done a piece of music quite as badass as “Setting The Traps”. This track is to Home Alone what “Short Hair” is to Mulan, a marriage of synth drums and orchestra that pumps you up for what’s to follow. Kevin storms through the door declaring “This is MY house! I have to defend it!” (it’s this movie’s equivalent of “Let’s get dangerous”, I swear) and we’re treated to a montage of him planning and placing enough booby traps to outdo One-Eyed Willy. When Harry and Marv show up, Kevin – and we the audience – are well-prepared and hyped.
As for the invasion itself, well, call me crazy but it’s quite similar to the Pottersville sequence in It’s a Wonderful Life: it only happens in the last thirty minutes, it lasts even less than half that time, but it’s the part of the film everyone remembers the most – and for good reason. Everything about it works, from the inventive snares and perfectly timed slapstick, to Daniel Stern’s increasingly high-pitched screams and Joe Pesci’s self-censoring turning him into a Brooklyn Yosemite Sam. While everything preceding this had some humorous moments mixed with heartwarming beats, here it’s nonstop laughs throughout.
And now, based on effectiveness, creativity, pain factor, and my own capricious whims, here are Shelf’s Top 10 Favorite Home Alone Traps!
After all that and more, Kevin tips the police that the house across the way is being robbed. He tries get Harry and Marv to follow him there. But Harry rightly guesses that he’s leading them into another trap and they head Kevin off at his escape route instead. As the two gleefully plot their revenge on the boy, Marley appears, whacks them both with his shovel, and rescues Kevin. I think my favorite thing about this is the little gasp of “Wow!” Kevin makes as Marley hauls him to safety, like he’s witnessed the South Bend Shovel Slayer in action, but takes comfort in the fact that he uses that shovel for good. Harry and Marv are arrested, their ill-gotten gains are returned since the cops know which homes they robbed (gee, it’s like marking the houses you hit was a terrible idea or something), and Kevin watches them being hauled to prison from the safety and comfort of his home.
On Christmas morning, Kevin wakes up, runs downstairs calling for his family…and is devastated to find that his wish didn’t come true. Yet moments later, Kate returns. While Kevin is initially happy to see her, he’s reticent to embrace her. He hasn’t forgotten what Kate did, and he can’t forgive her until she acknowledges what she did was wrong – which she immediately senses and rectifies.
Kate apologizes that the rest of the family couldn’t make it when they all burst through the door; according to Peter, they caught the later flight that she skipped out on. Kevin impresses everyone, even Buzz, when they learn he took care of the house and bought food all on his own. My one gripe with this scene is that I wish they found out about his heroics from the night before. Sure, Peter discovers Harry’s knocked-out gold tooth on the floor, but nothing comes from it. If Kevin told them and got Marley and the police to back him up on it, he’d never have to worry about his family looking down on him again.
While the McCallisters settle in, Kevin looks through the window and sees that Marley took his advice from earlier: the old man is in the middle of a happy reunion with his son and granddaughter. The two acknowledge each other with a wave and a heartfelt smile – until Buzz discovers the state of his room and sends Kevin running.
John Hughes and Chris Columbus may not have set out to create a Christmas classic with Home Alone, but thirty years later it’s evident that they succeeded in making one. It’s a ton of fun wrapped up in all the holiday trappings – and actual traps – you could ever wish for. What gets me about Home Alone, though, is how much sincerity and warmth there is to it. They could have easily made it all about the wacky hi-jinks and physical comedy while shoehorning the sweetness as an afterthought (which is something the sequels do), but there’s a perfect balance of both here. Beneath all the paint can-clobbering and screaming is a story about family and conquering the fears that come with isolation. There’s virtually nothing dumbed down to keep the kids entertained, and the adults can also enjoy the humor while soaking up the Christmas atmosphere. And during the past crazy year where family and holiday plans have been upended and many of us were stuck in our homes like Kevin, well, this felt like the perfect Christmas movie for the time. It’s one of those films I could never get tired of watching. The acting, the holiday visuals, the big laughs, the tenderness and John Williams’ exquisite score get me excited to revisit it every December. It’s more than earned its place among the beloved Christmas movies ever made, and I hope it stays that way.
Thank you for reading, and for those of you who have been waiting for this, super duper extra huge thanks for being so patient! If you enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Patreon supporters receive great perks such as extra votes for movie reviews, requests, early sneak-peeks, and more. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones and Gordhan Rajani for their support! I’ll see you again soon for the long-awaited fifth anniversary movie review!