1st December: Home Alone

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 1990

Director: Chris Columbus

Written By: John Hughes

Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern

May contain spoilers.

Perhaps there was only one place to start. One of the most enduringly popular and widely-seen Christmas films there is, Home Alone is inevitably therefore a film I have not seen. Until just now. Just as My Marvel Diary highlighted my abysmal superhero knowledge, you will discover during the course of this challenge that there are an awful lot of Christmas movies that have passed me by too. Ones that most people would consider a holiday staple.

Maybe I am just an enemy of fun, and for 21 years refused to watch anything colourful or joyous. That’s certainly what my teenage viewing would suggest, as I bounced between Taxi Driver and The Wire whilst the Manic Street Preachers blared away in the background. Now, I am an altogether sunnier, less self-consciously serious person than I once was. In fact, having finished with the glorious but heavy-going festival season, I recently declared that if my viewing did not involve Christmas, an explosion or Strictly Come Dancing then I was not interested.

Back on topic, I rather enjoyed my first Home Alone experience, but it did take an awful long time to get going. What I thought the film would be going in turned out just to be it’s last half an hour. Home Alone is famous for what could best be described aa family-friendly ultraviolence. Its approach to slapstick is to be as inventive and as outrageously cruel as possible. At several points the cartoonishness slips away and you’re left with the realisation that you have just witnessed a man have his face scalded with an iron, or half the flesh burnt off his hand.

The level to which Home Alone pushes the darkness of its home invasion set-piece is of course where its entertainment value lies, in the comedy of watching something so violent wrapped up as cute Christmas japes. To a young audience the invention in young Kevin’s traps are enough to bring a laugh, and for an adult audience, more aware of the actual severity of his revenge, there is a black humour to the whole thing. It is no wonder that people talk about Home Alone as if the first hour doesn’t even happen, because it is the closing antics that bring most of the enjoyment.

For me, as a first-time watcher waiting for those pesky Wet Bandits to get what’s coming to them, the prolonged ‘build-up’ just felt a bit bland. It’s not particularly funny, or especially exciting as it’s fairly obvious where the story is going. Who could have thought that the grumpy old man everyone fears would actually turn out to be really nice? Anyone who’s ever seen a film, that’s who.

The overall ‘heartwarming message’ is a bit muddled, too. The idea that it is Kevin who must go on the emotional journey of self-improvement, and not his horrifically neglectful parents, is bizarre. Kevin’s eventual realisation that he must be more loving and grateful towards his family is dependent on him being a little shit, but the opening in fact establishes the opposite: that poor Kevin is surrounded by uninterested adults and bullying, disloyal siblings.

Somehow, though, the film feels warm, fuzzy and wholly satisfying come the end. There are so many holes you could pick in it, but Home Alone gets by on charm and love. Even the savage booby traps feel like they were crafted with real affection and care. Written by John Hughes, there is something of the likeable wit of Ferris Bueller to this film, where you like and care about people you really shouldn’t on the face of it. 

Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara and John Candy are then of course all immensely watchable, as is the ultimate child star Macaulay Culkin as Kevin. Director Chris Columbus is famed for being great with young actors, and that is on full display here. Culkin’s mischievous grin, at once angelic and deadly, somehow carries a pretty flimsy film to classic status.

Well, a Christmas classic at least. How good a film it actually is is up for debate, but Home Alone does hold something terribly Christmassy in its reels. The house the McAllister’s live in is part of the kind of cherry-pie American neighbourhood that has been lambasted and satirised a thousand times, but what I wouldn’t give to spend one Christmas there.

Home Alone is the picture-postcard American holidays with a big dash of anarchy and gleeful destruction thrown in. The two offset each other so you’re left with something that finds the holiday-viewing sweet spot.

Did Home Alone underwhelm me a little? Yes. Will I be watching it again next year? Absolutely.

Andrew Young