When Home Alone was released in the fall of 1990, I was 10 years old, the same age as star Macaulay Culkin, who played 8-year-old Kevin McCallister. And like pretty much every kid in America, I went to see Home Alone in the theater. I saw it three times, more than I've seen any movie in its original theatrical run before or since. I was mesmerized. I laughed at Kevin's clever plan to foil the burglars (played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) who broke into his house, and I smiled at the happy ending that found the burglars arrested and Kevin reunited with his family. Like Kevin, I fantasized in my more emotionally troubled moments that my family would disappear, although I was never subject to anything so undignified as potentially sleeping in the same bed as an incontinent cousin. But mostly, I think I was fascinated because Home Alone was absolutely terrifying.
Not "terrifying" like the disreputable slasher sequels I watched surreptitiously at friends' houses; the horror movie–style scares in Home Alone are silly and easily dismissed. Kevin is spooked by the ominous furnace in the basement of his house, but its roars are exaggerated and cartoonish, and when he bravely tells it to shut up ... it does. He also lives in fear of his neighbor, known as Old Man Marley, whom Kevin's older brother claims is the infamous South Bend Shovel Slayer, never arrested because the police lack sufficient evidence. Like the furnace, though, Old Man Marley is a caricature of a monster, the kind of figure I could dismiss back then even having only seen a handful of horror films. He, too, turns out to be entirely harmless — a lonely old man who misses his family, just like Kevin does.
Vanquishing the furnace and coming to sympathize with Old Man Marley are two of Kevin's biggest victories in the film, quieter but no less significant than his triumph over bumbling criminals Harry and Marv. They're important steps on Kevin's road to the one thing that scared me most: adult responsibility. The real terror of Home Alone comes in that sudden and irrevocable push into growing up, when Kevin realizes that his family isn't coming back and that he's completely on his own.
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Director Chris Columbus plays it for laughs, as Kevin runs amok in the house, jumping on the bed while eating popcorn, shooting action figures with his brother's BB gun, sledding down the stairs and out the front door. The sadness on Kevin's face when he first realizes what's happened — "I made my family disappear" — is quickly replaced by joy. But that sadness is always in the background, even as Kevin revels in his lack of supervision and finds the resources to fend for himself.
Like most kids, Kevin has a skewed, misguided perception of what it means to be an adult ("When I grow up and get married, I'm living alone," he tells his mother early in the film), but his solo existence of bingeing on ice cream, frozen macaroni and cheese dinners and old gangster movies looked a lot like what I imagined my grown-up life would eventually be like. It wasn't hard to jump from imagining myself doing that fun, grown-up-but-immature stuff to imagining myself in the rest of Kevin's situation, without anyone to care about me, without anyone to share the macaroni and cheese or enjoy the gangster movie with. I don't remember ever talking about this undercurrent of sadness with my fellow grade-schoolers who also loved the movie, but it was there back then and it's there now, in the way that Kevin says "For the kids" to explain his grocery-store purchase of army men, and especially in the world-weary tone of his voice as he tells a cut-rate Santa, "I'm old enough to know how it works."
Kevin doesn't actually know how it works, and at 10 years old I might not have, either. But plenty of kids my age did, and those kids also knew that the Santa illusion was the first of many that were set to be shattered as they grew up. What Home Alone showed us was that each of those illusions could be shattered at once, and that even when Mom showed up to give us a hug and tell us everything would be OK, there would be no going back to the way it was. I couldn't resist coming back to that traumatic event; thanks to kids like me, poor Kevin had to keep reliving that event through an entire franchise.
Home Alone 20th anniversary, Sat., Dec., 11, 11:59 p.m., New Beverly Cinema | newbevcinema.com