Home Alone is not a great movie. Nevertheless, in 1991, it was one of three VHS tapes that my grandparents owned that I had any interest in watching, and as a result I have seen Home Alone so many times that I could probably recite the movie by now. I could even recite the gratuitous scene in which Kevin, as played by Macaulay Culkin, fear-shoplifts a toothbrush that may or may not be approved by the American Dental Association.
There are aspects of the film that make no sense. Why does Kevin’s family hate him so much? Why are the Wet Bandits, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, able to survive what should be deadly violence with only cartoon injuries? How is Kevin able to assemble and clean up his sadistic Rube Goldberg death trap of a house so quickly? Why is he so protective of his house? Why didn’t he go to the police station, or tell one of the many adults he encounters outside of his house what had happened? Why is Kevin’s mom the only adult who actually seems that concerned about Kevin’s well-being?
And then, last year, it came to me: This movie is better if Kevin is dead.
You might think this is too much of a reach. You might think insisting that Kevin McCallister is dead and doesn’t know it is the most lunatic film interpretation ever, and that my editor was crazy to let me write this insane subway screamer manifesto instead of writing something worthwhile. Well, I don’t care. I am going to M. Night Shyamalan Home Alone for you.
The film opens with a chaotic scene in a Winnetka, Illinois, mansion, where 14 extremely wealthy people of all ages hate a malignant and destructive little ghost named Kevin, who thinks he’s still alive. Kevin is a chaotic spirit who leaves toy cars on the floor and destroys his father’s new fish hooks. (Question: If the family is so rich then why is Mr. McCallister so angry that his “new” fish hooks have been made into ornaments? Just buy more, moneybags!) We know everybody hates Kevin because they tell him so, seemingly gratuitously. One cousin calls him a “disease.” Uncle Frank calls him a “little jerk.” It doesn’t make sense for an entire extended family to be that cruel to one 8-year-old member. Unless that 8-year-old is a ghost that won’t leave them alone.
“I’m sorry, this house is just crazy,” Kate McCallister (played by Catherine O’Hara) says as she pays for pizza. Crazy haunted.
In the Dead Kevin version of Home Alone, the reason the extended family has gathered in the Winnetka house is that the next day, they’re all going to fly to Paris without Kevin, so they can get a little peace and quiet. Leaving him home was deliberate; nobody actually thought Kevin would join them on the trip to Paris, because he’s a spirit who is tethered to the house. Kate McCallister is the only person who reacts to forgetting Kevin the way a normal person would to forgetting a child. Her husband Peter is oddly calm, as are Aunt Leslie and Uncle Frank, who tries to comfort Kate by telling her that he forgot his reading glasses.
Kevin has an aversion to both the third floor of his house (“It’s scary up there!”) and the basement, where a menacing furnace calls his name. It doesn’t take a first-year Tisch student to point out that this pair of aversions represent Kevin’s refusal to leave the physical world of his house and ascend or descend to the afterlife.
Kevin is not without allies. In one of the film’s first scenes, Kevin, his brother Buzz, and a cousin stare out the window at a man they watch—Old Man Marley—whom Buzz claims is a murderer. Marley is salting the sidewalks, an act Buzz claims implicates him in mummifying his victims. But in some belief systems, salt has a mystical purpose. Some believe that a circle of salt creates a sacred space, or can protect what’s inside it from negative energy. It’s possible that Old Man Marley is somehow Kevin’s otherworldly protector, attempting to keep the demonic Wet Bandits out of the neighborhood.
Later, as an emboldened Kevin attempts to leave the edge of his yard for the first time, he is thwarted by Old Man Marley, who appears practically out of nowhere and scares Kevin back inside, where he’s safe. Marley also appears when Kevin ventures past the edge of his yard for the first time the next day, as if to scare him back home again. On the night the Wet Bandits plan to rob Kevin’s house, Marley tries again to keep him safe, trying to teach him old-man lessons in a church. And it’s Old Man Marley who is finally able to fell the Wet Bandits with his shovel, after Kevin leads them through a series of hellish physical ordeals.
The Wet Bandits cannot possibly be human, because they apparently can’t die. Harry can endure a blowtorch to the head, Marv can fall down multiple flights of stairs and get hit in the ribcage by a grown man wielding a crowbar, and both of them take flying paint cans to the face. Neither dies, not even a little bit. After every one of Kevin’s ghostly traps, Marv and Harry are able to move around more or less normally, with slight limps. It’s demonic.
Kevin, too, can defy physical rules, as most ghosts can. In one scene, he toboggans down a flight of stairs and out his house’s open front door, an impossible ride due to the placement of the stairs and door. In another, he lip syncs into a comb while a towel tied in a way that makes no sense at all sits around his waist. He’s able to outrun the Wet Bandits’ van, and somehow build an entire black site’s worth of torture devices over the course of a single day.
One of the most telling moments in the film comes when Kevin’s mother hitches a ride with a polka band, led by Gus Polinski (John Candy). In the back of a Budget rental truck, Kate asks Gus if he’d ever left his kid home alone. Gus replies that he’d actually left his kid at a funeral parlor once, all day long. Kate says, “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this.” Gus points out that she had brought it up. “I’m sorry I did,” says Kate, mad with grief.
We’ve all seen the movie, so we all know how it ends: Kate returns home to find the house in pristine condition when it should have been a veritable Jackson Pollock painting made of burglar blood. Kevin embraces her. Seconds later, the family returns home, says hi to Kevin, congratulates him, and goes back to their rooms without much curiosity about what Kevin had done, begrudgingly accepting their ghost boy’s presence in their home as a source of protection and not just a menace.
And that’s why Kevin in Home Alone is dead.
If you liked this insane piece of film criticism, hang out with me after I’ve had two glasses of wine and the subject of The Shawshank Redemption comes up. (Morgan Freeman is imaginary.)