Whether you believe in angels or not, they exist.
At least for Kevin McCallister they do, our titular character in Chris Columbus/John Hughes’ subliminally dark slapstick homage to the cinema of yesteryear that has been putting children on the naughty list for 25 years. HOME ALONE stands as a very unique take on a tried-and-true, yet worn home invasion subgenre, a genre that typically falls within the realm of horror thriller. Films like STRAW DOGS (1971), BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) all depict the subgenre in an expressively grim, bleak, and subversive nature that calls to mind the social upheaval and unrest of the 1970’s. Times began radically changing from the free love of the 1960’s, becoming immortalized in the powerful lens of cinema. Things were no longer safe; doors had to be locked and bicycles had to be removed from lawns, especially in the wealth of suburban homes.
The cinema of the 1980’s saw an immense rise in slashers after the insurmountable success of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, while the reality of the decade saw an escalation in property theft. The America represented in the works of Frank Capra, Howard Hawkes, and George Stevens were systematically deconstructed, leaving a defenseless and vulnerable underbelly that would require generations to come to grow up, and quick. What John Hughes, the godfather of bruised egos and tattered hearts, ended up creating was an ode to the golden era of Hollywood. It is, a movie laced with the internal pain of growing up, and one of the most sympathetic anti-heroes to grace the screen since Travis Bickle pulled his cab up almost forty years ago in TAXI DRIVER.
HOME ALONE tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an eight year old who is forgotten by his parents on a holiday trip to Paris and left to defend the house from two incompetent burglars. The film offers up plenty of holiday spirit ripe with saturated reds that illustrate the essence of Christmas, as well as the pangs of being the youngest child. From the milk stained napkins that cover up Kevin’s disposed plane ticket, to the comforter that hides Kevin from Old Man Marley (an underappreciated Robert Blossoms), red overwhelms and conquers our senses, lying subdued once the mischief begins. It’s effortless to subjugate, scrutinize and punish our anti-hero, playing judge, jury and executioner to his outbursts, though we would be ultimately laying fault to a victim.
Surrounded by older siblings that tower over, ridicule and fault him, Kevin unwillingly becomes prey to the war at home, desperately seeking attention and validation, constructing ornaments out of fish hooks that do little to catch affirmation of his creativity. Being the youngest of five, Kevin ends up the bi-product of his environment, constructed out of bits and pieces of the chaos and disorder that surround him. Very much like Travis Bickle after serving in Vietnam, he searches for order and peace, and when nothing is found he rebels in an attempt to build his own.
That is, until an angel is sent to Kevin in the form of his next-door neighbor Old Man Marley, who is subjected to exaggeration and storytelling that turns our Clarence into Frankenstein’s misunderstood monster. There’s a scene where the family, having settled at their relative Rob’s home in Paris are watching Capra’s IT’S AND WONDERFUL LIFE on television, a film that has its protagonist wish that he never existed only to be sent an angel to show him the way. They stare in confusion at the screen, with French dubbing telling them nothing of the heartache and frustrations George Bailey is experiencing. There’s a blankness to their eyes that recalls the faces they give Kevin, unable to grasp the anger and discontent that pulses through his veins. It takes an angel for wrought emotion to become transparent, and only after a wish.
Old Man Marley comes to him, attired in black as to give his voice gravitas and stalwart emotion-not as a monster from the recesses of his brother’s imagination, but as an angel with wings spread and an exposed conscience in the form of a cut on his hand. The only time we see Mr. Marley is through the eyes of Kevin, taking comfort with him on Christmas Eve in church, which becomes a sanctuary against those invading his home. It isn’t until he begins to grow that his guardian angel’s wound begins to heal, all while they piece each other together. There’s an understanding and compassionate dynamic between the two that offers HOME ALONE the heart it had been asking Santa for from the beginning, yet couldn’t afford until it grew up.
On and below the surface of HOME ALONE there is a substantial amount of pain that Chris Columbus (ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING) orchestrates from beginning to end, from humiliation and abandonment, to blowtorches and paint cans. Decorating his movie in a holiday genre wrapper and giving it a big family bow allowed writer JOHN HUGHES (PRETTY IN PINK) to layer it with heartfelt subtext interspersed with symbolically violent episodes of Laurel and Hardy slapstick. Our bumbling burglars Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) play pieces of Kevin, one part greedy and indignant, the other toy-adoring and belittled.
When we see Marv crawl through a window only to step barefooted on Christmas ornaments, we’re seeing a manifestation of Kevin’s own dejected feelings over his fishhook ornaments going unappreciated. When Harry (a character named after Orson Welles’ unapologetic Harry Lime from THE THIRD MAN) grabs ahold of a blistering doorknob, engraining his palm with an M, we’re witnessing the maturation of Kevin as he protects his home, as well as a nod to Fritz Lang’s M.
However difficult it may seem, the damage inflicted in HOME ALONE is never done so without meaning or an underlying message, showing the dualities between one’s inner and outer turmoil. In the end, a divine intervention occurs between Kevin and his Clarence as they both realize that a life without family is a life more painful than any booby trap, encouraging each other to spread their wings and soar.