Home Alone: The universal magic of schadenfreude
Near-fatal physical trauma10
Ivan Radford | On 25, Dec 2016
Comedy isn’t universal. Pain is. One person might find Stewart Lee funny. Another person might not. Both of them know that it hurts to be hit in the face with an iron. That’s the magic of Home Alone: it understands that at Christmas time, nothing brings people together like physical agony.
And make no mistake: Home Alone is a film full of physical agony. Two unsuspecting men are subjected to such torture as a paint can to the face, a blowtorch to the head, a nail through the foot, a fall down some icy steps and a shovel to the face. Any one of those on their own is enough to cause concussion. Together, they spell almost certain death. And yet we laugh. Oh, how we laugh at their near-fatal misfortune.
But it’s ok, the film tells us, because these two men are burglars: the Wet Bandits, aka. Marv (Daniel Stern) and Harry (Joe Pesci). That means that we can giggle, as a four-pound steam iron plunges 15 feet into the basement, where it connects with Marv firmly between the eyes – an impact that a doctor estimates is enough to cause a blowout fracture, which lead to “serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision”.
That means we can chortle, as Harry touches a burning doorknob, which brands his hand with its literally red-hot metal. Two seconds of skin contact at 751 degrees Fahrenheit? That’s worse than a third-degree burn and, according to medical experts, could cause Harry to lose his hand completely.
And yet both continue to get back up and walk on through this sadistic Chicago fun house, being dressed up as chickens, taunted with spiders and effectively dropped from the height of a tree house to the ground. And still, we guffaw, as this non-stop parade of pain unfolds. This, we tell us, is the spirit of Christmas. We don’t question the fact that, in real life, were the injuries actually sustained, this could effecively be a homicide case. Or the fact that this punishment is meted out by an eight-year-old boy – Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) – who must have seen some seriously nasty movies, had some terribly inappropriate parenting or harbour some hitherto undetected psychotic tendencies to lead him to concoct such a cruel security system.
But all this perverse cinema, which Michael Haneke probably loves to watch with his kids every December, isn’t doled out straight away. It’s built up to with the light, comic, sweet-toothed touch of Chris Columbus, who directs a cute comedy, before allowing it to descend into depravity. Home Alone is two-thirds Disney and one-third Guantanamo Bay. We’re introduced to Kevin’s family from his perspective, seeing the suffering of a child who thinks he’s the neglected one in the family – and rejoices, initially, when they accidentally leave him behind for their Christmas vacation – so when he gets the chance to strike back at this unfair world, it’s understandable.
It helps that Macauley Culkin is so darn loveable, from his eyebrow-raising reactions to his adorable one-liners, not to mention his vulnerable naivety at thinking his neighbour is a serial killer, his basement boiler is sentient and that a Christmas wish really can bring his family back. His urge to protect his home turf from foreign invaders is even noble, in an American kind of way. “This is my house, I have to defend it,” he cries with all the conviction of a Donald Trump supporter.
The supporting cast are equally convincing, from Roberts Blossom as the kindly Old Man Marley to Catherine O’Hara’s seminal turn as the panicked mother who just wants to get home to check on her son. As we age, our sympathies shift, and her concern becomes increasingly affecting. Their accidental forgetting of Kevin, after all, is no direct fault of their own – on a scale of 1 to David Cameron, they’re hardly David Cameron. So the thought of an unprotected child standing up for themselves is, oddly, reassuring.
Regardless of how you identity with Home Alone, though, there’s one thing that doesn’t change: the cackles of glee at Marv and Harry’s endless trauma. No matter how old you are, it’s still funny to see Joe Pesci get blowtorched on the head. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is even, inevitably, a German word for it: schadenfreude, the happiness we all feel at the sight of other people’s suffering. The line between slapstick and violence has long been a central part of on-screen humour, from Chaplin and The Pink Panther to the Chuckle Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Home Alone sits right in the middle, a fairy-lit candy-coloured gateway to the dark, twisted depths of human nature. Yes, we laugh at this barbaric abuse. But as we stop to think and wonder what that says about us, we turn to our left and see that everyone else in the family is laughing too. What could be more Christmassy than that?