Study Guide

Home Alone

Home Alone Introduction


Release Year: 1990

Genre: Comedy, Family

Director: Chris Columbus

Writer: John Hughes

Stars: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy


If you've ever spent hours on YouTube watching people fail epically—getting hit in the crotch with a football or crashing a dirt bike into a brick wall—this is the movie for you. Laughing at someone being mashed in the groin is funny everywhere around the world, and Home Alone is the Great Pyramid of Giza of slapstick humor—its final half hour is pure, unadulterated, family-friendly violence.

So. Much. Violence.

After eight-year-old Kevin McCallister is accidentally left home alone during the Christmas season, he has to struggle to survive. This struggle isn't exactly Bear Grylls territory at first…since it involves bingeing on ice cream and stealing a toothbrush. (Dental hygiene is important, y'all.)

But when two burglars get involved, Kevin has to use physical threats to defend his home. In the movie's most famous sequence, Kevin sets booby traps, and gleefully provokes tons of slapstick injuries, from a nail driven into the sole of a burglar's foot (eek) to a blowtorch igniting the crown of another burglar's head (double eek).

So: did America's filmgoers run in fear after watching a movie about an angelic blonde kid unleashing his inner sadist?

Nope. People lurve seeing hilarious injuries…especially when they're being doled out by a fundamentally likeable little kid.

When it came out in 1990, Home Alone proved to be Christmas movie gold. It's got a neat, instantly recognizable childhood fantasy/fear as its underlying concept—a kid is accidentally left at home. (Alone, obviously.)

  

And who among us didn't have that fantasy as a kiddo?

None of us, obviously: people shelled out the cash, making it (adjusted for inflation) the most successful holiday movie…of all time. Tough break, It's A Wonderful Life. (Source)

John Hughes, the writer of Home Alone, was no stranger to making bank by crafting entertainment suitable for families. He could turn his F-word switch on and off, writing PG movies like Home Alone and R-rated movies like (yup) The Breakfast Club. The dude knew how to churn out screenplays and make money while doing it. He could've had a giant pool of gold coins to dive into (like Scrooge McDuck) if he wanted.

Teaming up with Gremlins writer, now director, Chris Columbus, and burgeoning child star Macaulay Culkin (who currently plays in a rock band exclusively devoted to songs about pizza, Hughes and Co. pleased audiences throughout the world—and laughed at a few skeptical critics (cough cough Roger Ebert cough cough) all the way to the bank.

Home Alone has enshrined itself as an all-time holiday classic—which will undoubtedly be re-shown during the holiday season until the end of recorded history. Set your DVR, grab some cocoa, and…check for booby-traps.

What is Home Alone About and Why Should I Care?

When you think of cinema studies, a few film titles probably spring to mind. Citizen Kane. The Godfather. Taxi Driver.

A movie that probably doesn't pop up on that list is Home Alone. This movie doesn't have fancy-shmancy camera angles. Its script isn't game-changing. It's not masterfully acted (sorry, Macaulay).

But in terms of cultural studies or intellectual history, Home Alone is right up there as a Big Important Film. No, it's not black-and-white and nearly silent. It's not arty in the slightest. But if you want a concrete example of what Americans considered important in 1990, you should take a gander at Home Alone.

Because this family film not only decimated the box office in 1990, it's also the top-grossing holiday movie of. all. time. That's major—if there's one thing that the American public loves more than eating sugar cookies during the holidays (mmm, sugar cookies), it's going to the movie theater as a family. So you better believe that it reflects some serious American values.

So what values does Home Alone reflect, besides the indisputable fact that aftershave burns? Check it:

1. Action In Home Alone: A single eight-year-old child defends the All-American Christmas from the forces of anarchy—using fire. And nails. And a BB gun. And paint cans.

American Value: To quote another John Hughes movie: "You mess with the bull, you get the horns." Kevin is doing the same thing that sheriffs do in small towns in Westerns and that Imperator Furiosa does in Mad Max—protecting what needs to be protected by any means necessary.

And our love for protecting our hearths hasn't diminished since 1990, but it has changed. The fact that Kevin's so violent—and that it's a-okay—places Home Alone as being filmed in a time before Columbine, Sandy Hook and Santa Barbara. School shootings hadn't yet become an epidemic, and so violence in children was seen as something less threatening than it is today.

2. Action In Home Alone: As he defends the American Way from chaos, Kevin goes from being a snotty little brat to being a self-reliant kid, capable of burning and maiming robbers and surviving on his own.

American Value: Bootstraps, y'all. We love a story of a self-made (wo)man. Sly Stallone in Rocky. Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.

The story of an individual who succeeds against all odds? We can't get enough of that.

But again: in the decades since Home Alone came out, we're culturally less about individuals making it on their own and more about evolving within a group. We're less about Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (#1 all the way) and more about JLaw in The Hunger Games (teamwork is the best work).

After all, in a world that includes social media (which was sadly lacking in 1990) we're less likely to idolize those who go it alone. They don't call it "loner media."

And there are a bajillion-and-a-half other ways in which Home Alone is a time capsule of late 80s values.

This film's stereotypical worried mom and chill-to-the-point-of-frozen dad?

That speaks volumes.

Its almost complete lack of people of color?

That also speaks volumes.

Its assertion that the perfect diet consists of pizza and mac n' cheese?

Okay, sure: some things are eternal across the ages.

Trivia

When the screenplay isn't quite cutting it, you can always fall back on the natural improv talents of actors. John Candy, who played Gus Polinski, improvised some of his best lines in the movie. One of the movie's funniest moments of dialogue comes when Gus describes how he accidentally left his son at a funeral parlor for a day. That 100% Candy. (Source)

Kevin must've been really affected by Buzz denying him that cheese pizza. The actor who played Kevin—Macaulay Culkin—now plays in an indie band that performs parody versions of Velvet Underground songs…all themed around pizza. For instance "Sunday Morning" becomes "Pizza Morning." Yup. (Source)

Joe Pesci used some serious mind games against Macaulay Culkin on set—he tried to avoid him in order to make Macaulay think he was actually a bad guy. Also, he supposedly bit Culkin's finger for real while they were rehearsing the scene where Harry threatens to bite Kevin's fingers off. That's getting way into the role—some serious "Method" acting. (Source)

Sometimes even child actors (at least, those who go on to play in pizza themed bands) can actually improve a scene through the magic of improv comedy. Macaulay Culkin performed his famous scream differently that it was written: instead of waving his hands around after putting on the aftershave, he keeps them stuck to his face, like (according to director Columbus) in Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." It adds an element of primal terror—like he really knows that he's home alone. (Source)

There will be no violent sibling rivalry stories in this interview: the actor who played Buzz, Devin Ratray, said that he actually got along very will with his own older brother and didn't use those experiences to inform his role as Kevin's older brother. He simply acted. (Source)

John Hughes was total softy. In the scene where Kevin sees a picture of Buzz's girlfriend and says "Woof!" Hughes thought that would be too cruel to do this with an actual girl's photo. So they put the art director's son in makeup and used that picture instead. Who says Hollywood people are all totally evil? (Source)

Since computer generated imagery wasn't widely used back in 1990, they simulated the scene where Harry gets burned on the head with a blow torch by burning a mannequin on the head in his place and then superimposing Harry onto the image using reflective glass. It's relieving to know they didn't actually burn his skull—though it would've sent his acting cred through the roof. (Source)

Originally, the script kept crime in the family, adding a sinister undertone and confirming Kevin's suspicions about a certain family member. In his first screenplay for Home Alone, John Hughes had Uncle Frank turn out to be the criminal mastermind behind Harry and Marv. Actually, it's kind of disappointing that they didn't stick with that plot point. (Source)

The actors could enjoy a dip on set if they wanted (we're assuming). At least, the flooded neighbor's basement Kevin wades through was actually built using the swimming pool of New Trier High School in Illinois where part of Home Alone was shot. (Source)

Home Alone Resources

Websites

Home Alone IMDB Page
If you want a load of data—cast lists and technical specs—to bury you, this is the place to go. If you want the smooth, brilliant synthesis of data into subtle and refined writing, we're just saying there are other websites (cough Shmoop cough).

Home Alone Rotten Tomatoes Page
This is a fascinating one—mainly because of how negative it is. When Home Alone came out, audiences loved it and critics hated it: it only has a measly 55% positive rating. How is this possible? Suffice it to say, the movie's endured the test of time.

Home Alone Metacritic Page
Yet another website to go to, if you're in the mood for feeling baffled. Hard to believe critics dumped on Home Alone like this.

Home Alone Fan Site
This site is for hardcore Home Alone fans who like taking quizzes on the what the worst Home Alone sequel is (Home Alone 4 apparently).

Locations Used in Filming Home Alone
If you're ever in the greater Chicago area, you can drive around and check out the places where they filmed Home Alone…unless you want to, like, climb the Sears Tower or eat some deep dish or spend your time in a more logical way.

Movie Sequels

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
This sequel repeated the success of the first movie and is pretty similar (most of the actors from the original are back), except it's in New York and substitutes the Plaza Hotel instead of the McCallister home. It also replaces the snow-shovel guy with a kindly homeless lady who loves feeding pigeons.

Home Alone 3: There's a New Kid on the Block
Didn't bring Macaulay Culkin back into the mix—instead, there's some new kid, who's trying to prevent thieves from stealing a microchip implanted in his toy car, and use it to help North Korean terrorists or something. John Hughes wrote the script, but it got lousy reviews.

TV Movie Sequels

Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House
This violated the airwaves back in 2002. Kevin grapples with a world in which his parents have been divorced, but it doesn't involve the original Macaulay Culkin cast, obviously. People hated it and it subsided into oblivion.

Home Alone 5: The Holiday Heist
This is more of the same stuff—kids alone at home, burglars—crammed into a different bag: a direct-to-TV bag.

Video Game Adaptations

Home Alone (1991)
In the first part of this Super Nintendo game, you run around the house planting booby traps for the burglars. You have to complete it in a time limit, before snapping the traps on the burglars and letting the bodies hit the floor.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992-1993)
Kevin runs wild in this video game adaptation of the sequel: you have to run around the hotel dodging bellhops, and into the sewers fighting pigeons. Finally, you lead Harry and Marv through another maze of pain.

Home Alone (2006)
This was randomly released in Europe years after the original Home Alone movie came out.

Articles and Interviews

"Home Alone Turns 25: A Deep Dive with Director Chris Columbus" by Amy Wilkinson
Columbus discusses his love of Christmas, and his fear of watching the movie's stunt men die or get horribly injured…

"How Home Alone Ruined John Hughes" by Jason Diamond
This critical naysayer claims that Home Alone transformed John Hughes from a sensitive chronicler of adolescence into a commercial sell-out.

"Did Kevin from Home Alone Grow Up to Be Jigsaw? A Deadly Serious Investigation" by Jason Concepcion
This is seriously thought-provoking stuff. By the time your finished reading, you'll be convinced that Kevin grew up to become the serial killer from the Saw horror franchise.

Roger Ebert Reviews Home Alone
Roger Ebert was a hater-in-chief when Home Alone came out. He didn't like the part with the booby traps—the movie's most famous sequence!

"All Grown Up: Checking in with Buzz from Home Alone 25 Years Later" by Khal
Buzz is still buzzin'. Here, he explains what it was like to be Buzz, and talks about meeting Michael Jackson on the set of Home Alone 2.

"Home Alone Hit Theaters 25 Years Ago. Here's How They Filmed Its Bonkers Finale" by Alan Siegel
Cinematographers and production designers don't get enough cred. Here John Muto, the designer, and Julio Macat, the cinematographer, explain how they shot the finale, rigging up the set and getting specific shots.

"25 Things You Might Not Know About Home Alone" by Jennifer M. Wood
The internet loves lists, and people love Home Alone. Put the two together and you get… a long internet list about Home Alone.

"Home Alone Filming Secrets Revealed" by Lesley Messer
This parodies the famous No Country for Old Men author's style, giving Home Alone the flavor of an ultra-violent Southwestern epic.

Video

Original Home Alone Trailer
This trailer does a good job of explaining what the movie's about: a kid left at home, burglars, booby traps—the timeless simplicity of the plot.

Clip – "Kevin Washes Up"
Macaulay Culkin delivers his famous scream, looking like aftershave has delivered him into a state of existential dread.

Clip – "Booby Traps"
If seeing someone step on a nail makes you queasy, confront your fears and watch this. We also see Harry burn his hand.

Clip – "Thirsty for More"
Kevin dishes out the pain and then rhetorically asks the burglars if they want more. They're too thick to turn down the offer.

Clip – "Pizza Delivery"
Kevin orders a pizza with malicious zeal, stiffing the pizza boy on a tip in the process.

Interview about Home Alone with Director Chris Columbus
Conducted by a Polish interviewer, this reveals that Home Alone is huge in Poland. And, oh—Chris Columbus explains what the movie means to him ("It's a love letter to Christmas") and how he made it.

The Onion Looks Back at Home Alone
This satirical video ends up going off in a crazy direction, becoming a kind of fake NRA ad for protecting children with guns.

Macaulay Culkin Interview (1990)
Macaulay Culkin describes how he got into the biz of child acting, as he eats a sandwich. He also explains that he actually did the stunt where he slides on his knees on the ice.

Audio

Home Alone Soundtrack – by John Williams
From the guy who did the classic Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones soundtracks. This really buries itself in your mind.

Home Alone Theme, including "Somewhere in My Memory"
This encompasses both the eerie, mischievous part of the theme and the sentimental, touching "Somewhere in My Memory" part.

Excerpts from Home Alone Conducted by John Williams with the Boston Pops
John Williams brings you that live version you know you always wanted but never thought to ask for until just now.

"Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone Soundtrack
This version of the Oscar nominated theme is accompanied by pictures of Quebec City in winter, for some reason.

Images

Home Alone Poster
This captures Kevin's famous scream, along with giving you a sense of the plot—kid left alone at home, fending off burglars.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York Poster
The poster for the sequel is similar to the first poster, except this time the Statue of Liberty is imitating Kevin's famous scream.

Kevin's "Battle Plan"
This is Kevin's battle plan for the booby traps—it doesn't look that complicated, but it evidently is.

Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister
Culkin made his mark as this iconic eight-year-old burglar-beater. He later on went to play in a pizza-themed indie band.

Joe Pesci as Harry
In this picture, Pesci sports Harry's trademark gold tooth, which glitters.

Daniel Stern as Marv
Stern is in the throes of acting, here—he screams as a tarantula crawls across his face, and you can also see the mark from where the clothing iron hit him.

Catherine O'Hara as Kate McCallister
Here's Catherine O'Hara as Kevin's mom, looking desperate at the airport.

Roberts Blossom as Marley
Blossom looks intense here—belying Marley's heart of gold.

John Candy as Gus Polinski
Candy radiates humanity, concern, and joviality as kindly polka bandleader Gus Polinski.

Devin Ratray as Buzz
Ratray perfectly conveys Buzz's vibe as a malicious older brother.

The McCallister Family House from the Movie
This house is still in the Chicago area if you want to go stare at it for a few minutes for some reason.

Harry Getting Burned with a Blow Torch GIF
In this gif, Harry's head is getting permanently blow-torched.

Kevin Menaces Marv with a BB Gun
Marv is suddenly realizing what he's gotten himself into, as Kevin levels a BB gun between his eyes.

The Scary Furnace
Before Kevin gets into it with the burglars, the biggest thing he has to worry about is this furnace, which turns into a monster in his mind.

An XKCD Comic about Home Alone
This points out how, with a certain difference, the plot of Home Alone might've seemed more brutal than funny.