Home Alone is an unlikely Christmas-set family favourite. It's the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8 year-old boy accidentally left behind in his Chicago home when his entire family head off to Paris for a Christmas break. That would be bad enough, but when thieves target the McCallister family's luxurious home the young boy turns vigilante. Over the course of an evening, he roundly abuses the 'Wet Bandits', Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) and leaves them battered and burnt in his wake.
The film has an ostensibly happy ending – but would the consequences be so rosy in real life? As Home Alone is released in cinemas once more, we decided to squeeze all the fun out of Christmas by taking this live-action cartoon seriously and delving into the real-world consequences (admittedly, under the law of this country rather than Kevin's native Chicago). Below, medical, legal and child protection experts weigh in on Kevin's adventures.
First of all, the medical situation. During the film Harry and Marv endure a number of painful-looking falls – down frozen steps and from an improvised zip wire. Harry's head is burned by a blowtorch and his hand seared by a heated brass knob, while Marv takes an apparently heated iron directly to the face. Both are knocked from a staircase by a swinging paint can and finally incapacitated by a snow shovel blow to the head. So how would they fare? We asked Doctor Lorna Montgomery.
"Both Harry and Marv – while maybe not looking the part – are athletic guys; they clamber along ropes, so they have a certain amount of muscle mass to protect their bones. Mostly, however, they are lucky. When Marv falls down the back steps, hitting every one, he could break a rib that could puncture a lung, or break his back.
"When Harry lands on his head on the front stairs, he should have at least a severe neck sprain, possibly a broken neck. Both of them should have packed up and gone home after those initial falls because they'd be in significant pain.
"Then Marv's hit by the falling iron. I'm surprised that he doesn't break anything in his face and spend the rest of the movie with black eyes and a broken nose. The fact that he doesn't carry even a bruise on his face I find wholly unrealistic.
"Next, Harry burns his hand on the brass knob. Usually, if you touch a hot piece of metal, you don't hold on as he does. I wonder if his pain reception isn't as good as it should be? He may have some form of neuropathy that makes you perceive pain less well; it can be associated with diabetes. But it must be pretty severe! His hand starts smoking, and if it's that hot you'd see gristling. He wouldn't be able to use the hand later. In fact, poor Harry doesn't seem to feel heat. Later a blowtorch scorches his head for 2 or 3 seconds and he doesn't move. That burns his hat and hair away, but his scalp is not even singed. That's unrealistic.
"Marv steps on broken glass ornaments, and what's weird is that he keeps walking through it. Even Bruce Willis [in Die Hard] shows pain at that! That makes me wonder if he too has peripheral neuropathy?
"When the paint cans hit them both in the face, I'm surprised they don't get knocked unconscious, and that they don't have broken noses. Their fall seems to defy physics. In the end they're knocked out with a snow shovel. Considering the constitution they have shown so far, it's surprising that that's what finishes it."
Will they live to burgle another day? "They should make a full recovery, but I think they might have a protracted time in hospital. The most unbelievable escape is the lack of broken noses. That's the big oversight."
The legal consequences
Given the injuries they sustained, the 'Wet Bandits' could sue Kevin - and his apparently deep-pocketed parents – for the injuries the 8 year-old inflicts. We asked two barristers, the Northern Ireland-based Mark McAvoy and England-based Angela Frost, to assess the pair's chance of success.
"The fact that a claimant was engaged in illegal activity doesn't automatically mean that his claim for damages for personal injury must be dismissed," says McAvoy.
So in principle the thieves could sue – and while the McCallisters could retort that Kevin was only trying to protect his family's home, such a defence might run into problems. "There's a requirement for proportionality between the claimant's wrongdoing and the defendant's conduct. So if the McCallisters claim that they're not liable because of the Wet Bandits' illegal acts, the thieves could retort that Kevin's violence was disproportionate.
"Mum and Dad McCallister could then argue that, in repeatedly forcing entry despite being aware of Kevin's formidable abilities as a home security specialist after their first attempt, the Wet Bandits willingly accepted what followed, so there would probably be a reduction in any award to reflect their contribution."
Bad news for the McCallisters, even if they aren't liable for the full extent of the injuries thanks to Marv and Harry's own behaviour. But how much would the damages be? It's hard to say for sure, but Frost discussed likely awards under English law (Northern Irish guidelines are significantly more generous).
"A judge makes a global award for the overall pain, suffering and loss of amenity," says Frost. "This is less than the sum of each injury separately. It's impossible to give a firm figure since we don't know how long their injuries lasted, but we can look at the guidelines."
Awards for head injuries run from a few hundred pounds for a short-term bash to the head, to awards up to £9,700 depends on symptoms and effects. "It's similar with their back injuries," says Frost. "If they're healed in under 3 months then awards run up to £1,860; if it's long-lasting with symptoms that affect daily life it runs up to £21,000. But we know that they're running around New York a year later [in Home Alone 2], so it's probably a good bit less than that."
The next most significant injuries in terms of likely award are Harry's burns. "Depending on the thickness of the burn to his hand, that could be up to £6,000; the burn to his hair could be up to £5,575 if it proved permanent. When Marv stands on a nail on the way up the basement stairs, that would attract a maximum of £5,325 if it caused difficulty walking for some time."
If there is post-traumatic stress disorder as Dr Montgomery suggests, that would also draw an award. "If that is present but there's a more or less full recovery in one to two years, then the bracket is £3,000 to £6,225."
Even assuming a full recovery and a reduction of the amount to reflect the 'Wet Bandits' own responsibility, the McCallister family would be looking at a bill of more than ten thousand pounds per Bandit. Let's hope their insurance is paid up.
The cost to the family
Most parents watching Home Alone are horrified by the McCallisters' negligence in leaving Kevin in the first place (especially given that they also manage to lose him in New York in Home Alone 2, a year later). If your reaction was to wish that someone would call Child Protection services, you are not alone. Seamus O'Hara, who worked in the NSPCC for 27 years and social services before that, discusses their likely reaction.
"If Child Protection Services are asked to check out the concerns of airline staff at a child being left home alone, they would visit but would not rush to action purely on that basis. After all, even very well-to-do families with help on hand have been known to leave children accidentally in pubs.
"Child Protection staff would be anxious to assess the emotional impact of the separation on Kevin, given that it lasted so long with no protective adult intervention. None of the adults are aware that Kevin was subjected to attempted assaults, nor are they aware that he inflicted extreme violence on the two thieves. If that emerged during post-separation counselling, there would be a high level of concern.
"Given Kevin's ability to shrug the violence off, most professionals would be greatly concerned to understand why he has not been traumatised - they would expect psychological issues. If not, does this in itself indicate some underlying disorder on Kevin's part? It's a point of real concern."
To sum up, then, Kevin McCallister's exploits risk killing two men and leave his parents facing a large financial payout and the ignominy of a social services investigation. Worse, Kevin himself may not be a loveable scamp but someone who suffers a violent lack of empathy for his fellow man.
But hey, merry Christmas!