Happy Holidays! “Home Alone” Criminalized the Working Class and Killed the Home Invasion Genre
A long overdue re-examination of the overt sociopolitical themes and genre revisionism of Chris Columbus’s classic vigilante thriller.
The village of Winnetka, Illinois is known for two things in its neighboring city of Chicago: its setting for the 1990 home invasion thriller Home Alone and its status as the bougiest of the city’s handful of bougie suburbs. According to CNN, it was one of the country’s top earning towns as of a decade ago with an estimated median household income of over $200,000, while the estimated median property value exceeds a million dollars—over five times more than that of the state’s average. Per the 2010 census, Winnetka is ninety-five percent white, and seventy-four percent of its homeowners are married couples. The aforementioned body horror-lite heist film could have taken place in any U.S. suburb, but it didn’t. It took place in Winnetka, Illinois. I think we should talk about that.
For anyone who somehow hasn’t been force-fed this Death Wish-indebted Rory Culkin vehicle, the plot to Home Alone is extremely straightforward, as if written for an elementary school audience: Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, Peter and Kate McCallister’s least favorite child, is left to flex his basic survival skills home alone while—sideplot—his immediate family becomes traumatized with irreparable guilt, and his extended family reveal their true feelings for the little jerk, four thousand miles away in Paris. For some reason, there’s also a prolonged and vaguely surreal scene at the end where Kevin dunks on a pair of criminal Rasputins attempting to leech off his aristocratic birthright, a scene which has largely come to define the movie. What begins as a lighthearted coming-of-age story wherein Kevin realizes he doesn’t need his family anymore takes a sharp turn, revealing itself to be some sort of sick fantasy his parents dreamed up about how their wealth has afforded them self-sufficient progeny.
Sharply contrasting with the McCallisters’ alienating annual salary is the projected caricatures of criminals Mr. and Mrs. McCallister dreamed up to be on the receiving end of Kevin’s endless series of windmill-tomahawks, figures probably inspired by a recent visit from their plumbers. “Marv” and “Harry” are two proletariat everymen unsatisfied with their meager salaries and undignified trade looking to cash in on the successes of their one-percenter clientele. Like everyone else the McCallisters interact with in the film (including whatever grotesque derivative of “artist” Gus Polinski’s polka band falls under), the Wet Bandits are cartoonishly working class, amplifying the we-haven’t-actually-met-anyone-who-pulls-in-a-salary-under-six-figures charm of the doofy teenaged pizza delivery driver, the incompetent airport staff, and Marley, the inexplicably waifish next door neighbor who—spoiler alert—we learn in the movie’s climax is actually the shovel-wielding assailant he’s rumored to be.
It’s no large stretch of imagination to suggest the film’s narrative was ideated by Kevin’s lunatic parents, who accidentally take their vigilante fantasies too far.
This is a movie about people so rich they’re completely out of touch with reality—in their most pathetic moments, Kevin’s parents are hijacking payphones from strangers, pleading to throw excessive amounts of cash at the de Gaulle airport staff to kick paying passengers off the plane headed back to Chicago, and later even requesting a private plane. (Commendably patient travel agent: “I’m sorry, we don’t do that.”) It’s no large stretch of imagination to suggest the film’s narrative—which sees no apparent transition from Kevin’s overcoming some ultimate, hyperbolized test of self-reliance to his realization that he needed his family all along—was ideated by his lunatic parents, who accidentally take their vigilante fantasies too far.
By 1990, the paranoid social influence of Reagan and Bush (Winnetka is nearly at the border of Lake County, which voted red in 1988), the rising literalism of conservative politics and religion, and the remaining cultural influence of Death Wish all contributed to the slow and inevitable death of the home invasion genre, which, in the broader tradition of horror, typically left its films’ invasive figures ambiguous so as to invite infinite interpretations. Not only is Home Alone extremely uncool for reappropriating the genre’s tradition of accidentally punishing sex with brutal dismemberment for a questionable PG rating, but it drastically narrows the scope of its appeal to hone in on the neurotic, financially endowed boomers whose residual memory of seeing Black Christmas in theaters has melded with the anxiety of facing undesirable situations they can’t buy their way out of—whether it’s one son’s unattractive girlfriend or another’s independence.
Anyway, happy holidays. FL