A husband and his wife return home after a night of merriment. The neighborhood is a quiet, snowy sight – idyllic, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Yet something is wrong. Next to it, a tree lies in the neighbors’ yard, uprooted as if it had been torn from the earth by an ungodly beast. “Looks like the toad overestimated the height of the ceiling in his living room,” the woman said.
As if at the right time, the door to his neighbors’ garage opens, revealing a man wearing a hockey mask. He walks with threatening intent – brandishing a chainsaw and backlit in cloudy yellow. When the couple ask him where he’s going to put such a big tree, the man in the hockey mask threatens to brutally assault them both with it. He punctuates this statement by spinning the chainsaw and brandishing it above his head.
It’s not a scene from an ’80s slasher, but “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” a completely deranged film that has long been a standard in the vacation movie lexicon. If you’re someone who celebrates Christmas (or even if you’re not), chances are you’ve watched it recently. Even if you didn’t, the resulting images were etched into your brain: Uncle Eddie dumping raw sewage into Clark’s yard; Clark stammers maniacally in front of a pretty mall employee; Uncle Lewis blew up the whole house with his stogie. It is only because these images are so ingrained in us that we cannot see how wild and horrible they are.
And that’s the magic of John Hughes, the writer / director whose sweet slapstick has become a genre in its own right. Hughes’ name is synonymous with romantic, stylized depictions of youth in films like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club,” which effectively captured the boredom of upper-middle-class white teens. But Hughes’ real gift was the ability to make horror palatable, even family-friendly.
Horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin, both possessing the ability to arouse extreme emotions in the viewer. This is the reason why horror comedies like “Re-Animator”, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Evil Dead II” work so well. And while “horror” is hardly the word people associate with Hughes, his films have introduced many of us to the genre’s tropes, making him one of the greatest secret horror directors in the world. America. If we pushed him a little bit, it wouldn’t take a lot of work to turn one of his vacation movies into horror movies.
Clark Griswold, the original Patrick Bateman
Hughes is particularly adept at seeing the underlying tensions that the holiday season brings out. If there ever was a true American Psycho, it was Clark Griswold. Even before the financial pressure of his missing bonus check finally breaks him, he fills every scene of “Christmas Holidays” with a barely suppressed mad-eyed mania – similar to Toni Collette’s performance in “Hereditary.” Clark’s quest for an “old-fashioned family Christmas” borders on obsession.
Does he dig the Christmas tree with his bare hands? Is he hallucinating a topless woman in the imaginary pool in his garden? Does he sit in a frozen attic for hours, watching home movies? Is he threatening his son with a chainsaw? The answer to all of this is yes. For all intents and purposes, Clark is not a healthy man. And when he does crack up, he sets off on a wave of verbal and psychological abuse – berating his family and destroying his home (chopping up through your own ramp = completely normal).
Let’s not forget the general atrocities happening around him: a cat is set on fire and Clark feels next to nothing. Uncle Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss with the intention of … what, torturing the bonus check from him? It’s fitting that the final image of “Christmas Vacation” is a flaming Santa’s sleigh, signifying Clark’s complete transformation into the new Christmas Dark Lord. “I did,” he said, looking absently at the full moon.
Rage manifested in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”
Neal Page of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” has a lot in common with Clark Griswold. The straight-up grumpy – played by Steve Martin – finds himself under intense pressure to return home for Thanksgiving, but can’t seem to rise above the nightmarish cycle of events that torments him every moment. Page and Griswold are both men whose sanity crumbles under the pressure of delivering a memorable vacation, however, Neal’s torment is more insular and private.
At the heart of his troubles is John Candy’s character, Del Griffith, an agent of chaos who always seems to show up when Neal is at his lowest. Del is less of a person than a manifestation of Neal’s hatred and anger, almost like some sort of Mr. Hyde / Tyler Durden thing. Is Del a demon trying to provoke Neal’s lowest instincts (remember the scene where he literally turns into a devil as they drive between two upcoming semi-finals?) Try watching “Planes” , Trains & Automobiles ”with the idea that Del only exists in Neal’s head, and it works most of the time.
The “Nightmare” of “Home Alone”
But of all the vacation horrors unleashed by Hughes, none felt as powerful as the home invasion terror of “Home Alone”. Stripped of its adorable star and sentimentality, the premise of “Home Alone” is creepier than “The Strangers”, “Straw Dogs”, “Last House on the Left” and many other staples of the sub-genre. home invasion. In fact, the movie has to be pretty much a comedy in order to deal not only with the violation of our safe spaces, but also the unspeakable notion of tormenting a child.
To horror fans, “Home Alone” feels like repurposing many of the themes for which horror legend Wes Craven has become known. Craven films often asked, “What happens when our safe spaces are no longer safe?” “Last House on the Left” and “The People Under the Stairs” explored this domestic terror, and 1984’s “A Nightmare On Elm Street” invaded both our dreams and our homes. The similarities between “Home Alone” and other horror movies aren’t just thematic, either. When Nancy fights Freddy Krueger, she uses the same type of Rube Goldberg traps that Kevin McAllister would later use against The Wet Bandits.
The holidays are full of horror – financial stress, unwanted guests, emotional burdens and mental breakdown. John Hughes got it. On the surface, his films are bright, syrupy, and funny, but there’s a sinister undercurrent running through them. They are violent and just a little sadistic. When Clark Griswold gets a ladder up to his nose, or when Harry from “Home Alone” is tar and feathered, we have to laugh. Otherwise, we would scream.