In his Hostel review for New York Magazine, David Edelstein poises a pointed question: “Are there moral uses for this sort of violence?” He goes on to coin the now-overused and misapplied critical sledgehammer “torture porn” to refer to films (mostly in the horror sandbox) that employ excessive torture and violence purely for “the prospect of titillating and shocking.” As seen in post 9/11 fare like Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek and even Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the bloodletting is non-righteous, muddling the viewer’s orientation between identifying with the victim or the aggressor;it’s all a good bit of the ol’ ultraviolence. There is motive behind the violence, but no pathos to truly justify it. These are the films that parents decry as dangerous to children—what if they consume this media, they say, and become desensitized gorehounds, harming themselves and others for the pure thrill of it? It’s a flimsy record that has played from the days of the Production Code through the trial-by-media of Child’s Play 2 (following the murder of James Bulger), taking a side route to pillory Marilyn Manson after the Columbine shooting and resting comfortably in the world of first-person shooter video games today.
But what if the victim is also the aggressor, and what if it’s all played for giggles?
Chris Columbus’ 1990 comedy Home Alone begins in its natural state, one of chaos. Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is one of the youngest members of a massive household of dysfunction. Everyone from his cheapskate Uncle Frank (the real villain of the film, played by Gerry Bamman) to his bullying older brother Buzz (Devin Ratray) disses and dismisses him; even the local grocery clerk underestimates his wit and resourcefulness. In fact, it’s his underdog status that screenwriter and producer John Hughes utilizes as the driving force behind young Kevin’s arc. “Everyone in this family hates me,” he complains to his mother (Catherine O’Hara). She brushes the comment off and tells him that she doesn’t want to see him again for the rest of the night, and he returns fire by wishing that he never sees any of his family again. So when Kevin’s wish is granted the following morning (due to an ill-timed power outage and a hurried cadre of adults in the household) and he’s suddenly left alone miles away from his kin, it’s a dream come true for the boy. But even with his family in Paris and him left to fend for himself, Kevin is minimized. “He’s so little and helpless,” his sister whimpers upon realizing how alone he must feel back home. The largest bit of ageism, however, is reserved for two unlucky hoodlums.
Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) have knocked over plenty of houses in their day, stealing goods from tons of families in the Chicago area. They, like Kevin’s family and the culture at large, assume that kids can’t handle themselves and are largely in the way most of the time. Their assumptions mount with every interaction. “He’s just a kid,” “I think we’re getting scammed by a kindergartener,” “He’s a kid; kids are stupid.” But despite being what the French (and his sister) call les incompetent, Kevin is adept at assault and battery. Over the course of a 103-minute runtime, the little monster proceeds to maim and mutilate the two feckless fools who dare enter his domain.
Columbus’ film was made in the early 90s, one of the last decades of laissez-faire parenting. Sent outside with little supervision until the street lights came on in the evening, kids of the era enjoyed a freedom to do stupid things like, say, jumping from the roof with an umbrella to fly like Mary Poppins (in my defense, I did make a soft landing with a pile of pillows and couch cushions). With that idiocy came a vulnerability to violence. The audience for this film was a generation of kids weaned on Looney Tunes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, American Gladiators, Monty Python, and the odd Three Stooges rerun on tv. Chris Columbus and John Hughes tag-teamed to cook up a recipe for Urgent Care disasters across the nation.
A limber reading of Home Alone sits it in the outskirts of home invasion horror. Like The People Under The Stairs, Don’t Breathe, and The Collector, a duo or trio of wholly unready criminals find themselves face-to-face with pure evil. Though he hasn’t yet hit puberty, Kevin McCallister is the Devil and he is here to do the Devil’s work. (Amusingly enough, in 1994 Culkin leans into the same vibe without the cutesy Dennis the Menace spin in his Home Alone 2 follow-up, as the bad cousin in The Good Son.) Both robbers are caught off-guard by little Damien Redux; even in doing their recon mission in the beginning of the film, Harry (disguised as a cop) only prepares himself for the “timers on lights and locked doors” that Kevin’s father mentions to him. “Don’t worry about your home; it’s in good hands.” Indeed. With the parents gone and the house seemingly empty, Harry and Marv look forward to a smorgasbord of stereos, fine jewelry, and cash hordes in the McCallister home, their “silver tuna” meal ticket. Unbeknownst to them, the house is occupied by a scared tyke with something to prove to the world.
At first, Kevin acts as most folks would expect a kid to. The thieves park their van in the McCallister driveway and give the joint a look-see. Kevin acts fast and flips on all of the lights but still goes defensive. He hides under the bed, eyes wide, until the coast is clear. After finding his mettle, Kevin struts outside shouting that he’s not afraid anymore—that is, until the (truly benign) South Bend Shovel Slayer (Roberts Blossom) rolls up. (A side note: Blossom once played an Ed Gein avatar in the wildly underseen Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile in 1974. He would’ve likely been a good ally if Kevin could figure out a way to avoid being eaten by the man. Not that he needed the help.)
Kevin isn’t the little cherub that the world thinks him to be; in fact, he’s a menace to society. He has anger management issues, displayed by his stomping and screaming in the film’s opening. He displays a lack of boundaries, immediately going for the skin mags and cold steel in Buzz’s room; he later uses his brother’s bb gun to fulfill his violent fantasies, shooting the trespassers point-blank in the face and family jewels. He’s even influenced by his own hyper-violent (and yet bloodless!) media: one of the first things he does in a hedonistic fugue state after learning that he’s home alone is pop in a tape of Angels with Filthy Souls, rife with tommy gun massacres. The sociopathic tendencies are not limited to those who deserve it, either—Kevin torments the poor Little Nero’s delivery boy who had done nothing more than his job, by staging a mock-shooting that terrifies the teenager so badly that he stumbles into the snow as he flees for his life. Make no mistake, by the time the Wet Bandits get into Thunderdome with Kevin, he’s already a hardened criminal, on the run from the law for shoplifting and evading arrest.
It’s clear upon a re-visit that while the bandits have lawless aims, they have no intention of harming the child until he draws first blood; all they want are the riches within the place. “Merry Christmas, little fella,” Harry grins. “We know that you’re in there, and that you’re all alone.” They even promise aloud not to hurt him. Kevin answers with:
- BB to the groin
- BB to the forehead
- Iced stairs
- Iron to the face
- Red-hot brass doorknob
- Tarred basement steps with protruding nails
- A blowtorch to the skull
- What can only be described as a “feathering”
- Glass ornament shards
- Micro Machines at the base of the stairs (a tactic Kevin repeats in the sequel with pearls unstrung from a necklace)
- Paint cans to the face (impacting hard enough for Harry to lose his gold tooth)
- Multiple trip wires
- A live tarantula to the face
Even Old Man Marley gets in on the action with a snow shovel to Marv’s head. Adding insult to injury, Marv delivers a bonus injury assist to Kevin—the tarantula lands on Harry’s chest, so Marv cracks his ribs with a crowbar. Brutal.
The film enjoyed heavy box-office and mild critical success, with most critics praising the treacherous festival of pain in its goofiness. Soccer mom watchdog Common Sense Media, in their usual fashion, fusses over the harmless and overlooks the reckless. “What might be shocking to parents who haven’t seen this movie since it first came out is the level of disrespect between kids and adults and the amount of sibling name-calling early in the movie. Adults speak of “nude beaches,” and young Kevin is called a “disease” and “puke” by his older siblings and even a “little jerk” by his uncle. On his end, Kevin has absolutely no problem talking back to his mother.” They go on to recommend the film for ages 8 and up. No fainting couches for gags that would cause a cervical spine injury if re-enacted, just for the back sass. Incredible.
It’s one thing to give the film another spin as an adult and cringe at all of the physical trauma. But another moment of clarity comes with the adult screening of Home Alone: all of these hand-wringing folks who are worried about exposing children to violence tend to focus on horror films, but the injuries sustained by the Wet Bandits are deadly, several times over—and the worst part is that there’s no blood. If anything is “harmful,” wouldn’t it be a child seeing someone take a snow shovel to the dome and getting back up like he didn’t just sustain a fractured skull and subdural bleeding?
The sentiment isn’t a hot take; in 2017, YouTuber BitMassive created a series of doctored clips from the first two Home Alone films showing the booby traps executed as usual, but with gore added into the appropriate places. The result is a gnarly trip through the Last House on the Left set to the delightful woodwind melodies of John Williams. Just a few years earlier, ScreenJunkies asked a doctor to diagnose the robbers’ injuries; Harry would have died of a cervical spine fracture upon his very first slip down the iced steps, and Marv would have quickly succumbed after Old Man Marley gave him a taste of snow shovel.
It’s all slapstick, sure, but life doesn’t give you stuntmen, kid. The violence incurred, while hilarious, is far worse than that of your average Freddy Krueger joint for two reasons. First, the true damage (and thus, the true long-term consequences) of each blow sustained is occluded—Harry and Marv might whimper and curse under their breath, but they ultimately bounce right back in pursuit of that silver tuna. Second– and it’s duly acknowledged that an entire genre would fall if it were otherwise—the positive humor of the violence eclipses the negative connotations that our society places on violent media. But it’s the stark, negative presentation of violence that hits home hardest. Which is the more effective anti-drug PSA: a D.A.R.E. comic book and a free pencil passed out at school, or Requiem for a Dream? If we are to treat kids like resilient, perceptive creatures as Kevin wishes, then show them what third-degree burns on a human scalp really looks like. The real heroes in this arena aren’t the Tipper Gores or the Mary Whitehouses assailing against naughty lyrics and cover art, it’s the Tom Savinis (Dawn of the Dead, Maniac) and Sarah Craigs (Dawn of the Dead ’04, It 2018) of the makeup fx industry, giving the youths a glimpse into what may happen if you start swinging blunt objects at people.
To be clear, none of this is a call for cancellation of a beloved classic (one that I still watch with my children repeatedly). It’s a call-out of the logic we use to keep our children from seeing the real world reflected onscreen. Violence is violence, and the only true deterrent is seeing what really happens after the moment of impact. Once the traps are all tripped, the bones busted, and the scalp is singed, the exposed skeleton of the story is that of a boyhood fantasy: defying all condescending expectations and becoming the capable man of the house. While the Wet Bandits are still nursing their wounds in a jail cell, Columbus brings the narrative back to the core fantasy that has motivated Kevin the whole time. After reuniting with his family, he casually mentions that he went to the store and bought supplies in their absence, omitting the House of 1000 Corpses he constructed to foil two seasoned adult cat burglars. Everyone is shocked; his father chuckles, “No kidding, what a funny guy!” In a sense, he’s right; Home Alone is a deceptive bit of torture porn that embodies the classic ominous mom-ism, “Oh, you want to act funny? I’m about to be hilarious.”