When Home Invasion Is Funny

By  · Published on November 16th, 2015

home alone

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Like many classic children’s books, Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” is kind of disturbing. It’s about a home invasion, where a strange cat-man enters a house inhabited by two small children left alone by their mother. He just wants to show them a good time, but never once do the kids seem happy to have him there, especially after he unleashes two additional intruders that cause havoc. In the end, the kids consider keeping the Cat’s intrusion a secret from their parent while the book asks readers what they would do in the situation.

The sequel, “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” is more of the same creepiness disguised as a wild fantasy tale of mischief. If you disregard later stories and TV cartoons where the kids and the Cat and even the cranky fish become pals (a common thing for animated series, a la Beetlejuice and The Real Ghostbusters where movie bad guys become cartoon good guys), it’s actually a scary scenario. And it may even encourage kids to suppress bad things that happen to them. But those books were published in a more innocent time, almost 60 years ago.

More recently – 25 years ago to be exact – home invasion was still something allowed to be taken lightly, and humorously, in the blockbuster family film Home Alone. You know the plot: a kid is left behind by his family as they travel to France for Christmas, and he winds up having to defend his house against burglars who relentlessly try to break in despite discovering the place to be occupied. And booby-trapped. The movie came along at the end of a decade when kids were empowered against evildoers, like the criminals in The Goonies, the invading Soviet and Cuban armies in Red Dawn and the iconic creatures of Monster Squad.

Seven years before Home Alone, we even saw a brief glimpse of its concept, minus the abandoning parents, when Ralphie day-dreams of thwarting a bunch of bandits attempting to invade his home thanks to his Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story. Interestingly enough, that movie, which keeps its Home Alone stuff to fantasy material inspired by old Westerns where characters defend their homes and towns against outlaws, is directed by Bob Clark, who’d previously made a kind of home invasion horror flick with Black Christmas.

Christmas is actually a key holiday for home invasion movies, particularly those that have fun with the idea. There’s The Ref, for another, later, less kid-friendly example. And earlier, also from the work of Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, in which the title character dresses as Santa and takes instead of gives. And there’s a brief bit in Santa Claus: The Movie where a little girl discovers a dirty homeless boy in her home, which should be frightening , but it’s okay because he’s with Santa. But what all these movies, especially the last, should have us thinking about is how the holiday is centered around a strange man entering our homes in the middle of the night while we’re sleeping.

Like Clark, John Hughes, who wrote and produced Home Alone, dabbled in comedic home invasion prior to doing so in a family holiday film classic. In the Hughes-helmed and scripted Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the relatively harmless principal breaking into the home of a student to prove the kid is actually playing hooky, but it’s still intrusion. And he’s treated as such by the teen girl at home who thinks the worst, after she impulsively kicks him to the floor without realizing who he actually is, in a humorously edited scene.

Later, Home Alone could still be considered very influential on other family comedies that came after. There was 3 Ninjas, which has martial arts-trained kids avoiding being kidnapped in their home, also with help from booby traps, Richie Rich, which also stars Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin, and Dennis the Menace, which also is written and produced by Hughes and co-stars Home Alone’s Devin Ratray. Plus Blank Check, The Pacifier and Spy Kids.

Comedies involving this scenario go back to the beginning of cinema, though, just not necessarily with child protagonists, and they’re more typically concerned with the then favorite funny subject of burglary more than straight home invasion. Among them we’ve got The Burglar on the Roof and Burglar in the Bed Chamber both in 1898, The Burglar-Proof Bed in 1900, The Burglar and Subub Surprises the Burglar (produced by Thomas Edison and stealing the plot of The Burglar-Proof Bed) in 1903 and The Girls and the Burglar, which does involve youth protagonists using trickery to defeat an intruder, in 1904.

Also, there’s D.W. Griffith’s 1908 short The Christmas Burglars. Yes, Christmas again. In this film, which is sometimes classified as more of a drama than comedy, a Scrooge-like miser finds a letter to Santa from a poor little girl and hires burglars to break into the kid’s home, knock her and her widow mother out with chloroform, and leave a Christmas tree and presents as opposed to robbing them. It doesn’t get much more perfect than that for the holiday home invasion connection.

In years since, there have been more burglary comedies (Larry Langman’s book “American Film Cycles: The Silent Era” seems to list them all to a certain point) but also plenty more dark, horrific home invasion movies. Eventually movie plots just sort of grow up and get real. Which makes sense if you agree with entertainment writer and podcaster Dave Gonzalez, who notes in last week’s episode of Fighting in the War Room that Home Alone has been a great primer for future horror fans, and not just for the home invasion stuff either.

As for “The Cat in the Hat,” perhaps the same is true, but every kid reads that book and not every kid becomes a big horror fan. Like Home Alone, though, the 2003 movie Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat has plenty of “horror recut” trailers out there to drive home how the family friendly comedy makes laughs out of a truly terrifying situation.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.