Why the Stunts of ‘Home Alone’ Make It a Classic

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Home Alone remains a staple of holiday viewing 30 years after its release, thanks in no small part to its status as one of the greatest films about child neglect ever produced. In addition to being genuinely funny (thanks to smart direction by veteran comedy director Chris Columbus and a script by the king of 1980s adolescence John Hughes), the movie epitomizes everything about being a kid in the early 90s – namely, cheese pizza, shoddy plastic toys, and doing dumb shit like riding a sled down a staircase because you’re mad at your family.  The tale of a wee lad left at home to fend for himself and beat the absolute christ out of a pair of bumbling burglars quickly became one of the highest grossing films of all time, netting nearly half a billion dollars on a comparatively miniscule budget of $18 million. (Nowadays an $18 million budget won’t even get you an entire Will Smith, so there’s something to be said for this achievement.) Home Alone was the first movie I tried to see that was sold out, so in addition to being an annual tradition, the movie also taught me about disappointment and failure.

But why else has this modest family comedy endured for so long? Obviously, Macaulay Culkin’s preternatural appeal gave Home Alone much of its success, but I think the reason so many of us continue to pop it on every winter is to watch two extremely skilled stuntmen spectacularly eat shit during the film’s final 20 minutes. Yes, I argue that the primary factor behind the longevity of this unique little movie is the fact that it contains some of the finest, most entertaining stunt work ever captured on film.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Home Alone is the Ong-Bak of holiday comedies, in that the movie is trying like hell to murder its stunt team. If you’ve ever seen a Tony Jaa film, you know that Tony will stop at nothing until at least half of the performers he kicks never walk again. Every time he leaps into the air for a vicious Muay Thai knee strike, his goal is to strike his target so hard that he expels their very soul from this plane of existence. Chris Columbus attacks Home Alone with the same gusto, and the world is a better place for his bloodthirst. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if three stuntmen were killed on set while pantomiming the effects of a child’s supervillainous traps. The escalation of the set pieces in the film’s final act are incredible, as Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) are sent catapulting through the air, flying down staircases, and swinging two and a half stories down into brick walls. Because Home Alone takes place largely in and around an actual suburban home in Winnetka, Illinois, many of these stunts had to be performed without any real safety measures in place. Look no further than the moment when Harry slips off of the front steps into a backflip that ends with him landing neck-first on the pavement. That scene is up there with some of Jackie Chan’s work in terms of “this is a stunt that seems minor on paper but the longer you think about it the more horrifying it becomes.” A hundred different things could have gone catastrophically wrong with that landing, and like a Jackie Chan stunt, it was made a hundred times more impressive because it was done without wires, padding, or visual effects. The same thing can be said about literally every physical gag in the film, even one as seemingly minor as Marv slipping down the back steps. As Looney Tunes as Home Alone is in its DNA, the effects of each of Kevin’s traps are played out in a more or less realistic manner, and I think that commitment to grounded slapstick is the movie’s greatest strength.

Obviously, I’m using the word “grounded” somewhat liberally, because any single one of Kevin’s traps would’ve left Harry and Marv catastrophically injured if not flat-out dead (although I’d love to see a version of Home Alone in which Kevin has to frantically dispose of two adult corpses before his parents get home). But while each trap has a cartoonish result, Home Alone’s dedication to practical stunt work makes it better than most modern action movies. The reason the slapstick gags all land so hard is because the two heroic stuntmen doubling for Harry and Marv absolutely attack each bit like manic daredevils. It wouldn’t be half as impactful if the stunts were outrageously over-the-top and enhanced by CGI like a Fast and Furious movie. If that paint can had hit Harry in the chest and sent him backflipping through the wall propelled by low budget early 90s digital effects, I don’t think we’d still be watching Home Alone today. That clip would pop up on social media every so often like the vehicular assassination of Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black as a baffling relic from a long-forgotten film.

Image via 20th Century Fox

Columbus was very much aware of the importance of making Home Alone’s stunts feel real, and has said that the dedication of the performers was so intense that filming the movie’s iconic third act was infinitely more terrifying than fun. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly marking the 25th anniversary of Home Alone, Columbus said, “Every time the stunt guys did one of those stunts it wasn’t funny. We’d watch it, and I would just pray that the guys were alive. And then they would get up and they were absolutely fine, and then we would watch the playback on video and then we were relaxed enough to laugh. [Laughs] And then I knew it would work because some of them were hysterically funny after the fact. Even what seems simple, [like] the Joe Pesci character walking up the stairs of the front of the house and doing a back flip. I really thought Troy, our stunt man, had broken his back on that first take. As I said, until we knew those guys were alive and okay, none of that stuff was funny, so I was surprised once we put the film together how well it actually worked for an audience. The last 20 minutes of that movie, seeing it in a theater was unlike anything I had experienced as a filmmaker because people were just screaming with laughter. It was great.”

If you’re interested, there’s even more cool behind-the-scenes info about the stunt work on the Home Alone Blu-ray (in particular the delightful commentary track between Columbus and Culkin) and on the Home Alone episode of the Netflix series The Movies That Made Us. For instance, watching the commentary taught me that Daniel Stern is wearing giant fake rubber feet when he walks around barefoot in the snow, which is a thing I did not notice for three decades and now cannot unsee. They look like evil clown shoes, it’s wild. And while I will never know how Kevin was able to call the police from a neighbor’s house when a significant portion of the plot hinges on the fact that all of the phone lines are down, watching Oscar-winner Joe Pesci mumble Yosemite Sam curses while sailing down staircases and getting the top of his skull melted with a blowtorch is enough to make me absolutely not care.

Tom Reimann is an Associate Editor at Collider who ate so much pizza while writing this article he is now more pizza than man. Follow him on Twitter @startthemachine.

 

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