As a mischievous Kevin clobbers the two buglers with everyday household objects, the audience laughs, cringes, and howls at the physical comedy.
These gags were developed in exquisite detail in John Hughes’ script. However, filming the antics and booby traps that happened in the McCallister House required creative cinematography, props, stunt doubles, and magic tricks.
Let’s look at how the Home Alone house was filmed and the specific techniques used to capture the Home Alone pranks and most iconic scenes.
The Tarantula Was Real
Let’s start with that memorable spider scene. Unfortunately for actor Daniel Stern, who played Marv, the tarantula was real.
The initial plan was to use a mechanical tarantula, but on the day they were going to shoot the scene, the actor was told that the prop didn’t look real enough. When realizing they planned to shoot the scene with a real tarantula, Stern anxiously asked, “Did you take the poison stinger out of the real tarantula?” The response from the team was that by doing that the spider will die eventually. Stern replied, “But if you don’t take the stinger out, I will die.”
The filmmakers told Stern that tarantulas can’t hear well, so it was safe to scream while the spider was crawling on his face. His resulting scream was at a pitch inspired by the movie Psycho.
The Red-hot Doorknob Was Fake
In the movie, Kevin used an electric barbeque starter to heat a metal doorknob that burns the burglar’s hand. To film this scene, the props department made a fake version of a barbeque lighter made from neon tubing. The neon glow made it look like it was red-hot, but there was no heat involved.
A Special Camera Was Used to Get the Falling Iron Scene
There were a few different camera angles used to capture the scene where the falling iron knocks out the burglar in the basement. One of the creative shots used a special camera tied to a rope that could be dropped down the laundry chute. This gave the viewer the iron’s point of view as it accelerated toward Marv’s screaming face. “It totally brought you into the gag,” explains the Director of Photography Julio Macat.
The camera rig was designed to stop the camera about a foot away from the actor’s face, creating some actual fear for the actor as the camera is dropping toward his face.
The Nails on the Basement Steps Were Made of Rubber
In another painful scene in the home’s basement, the burglar ends up losing his shoes while trying to walk up tar-covered stairs, and he steps barefoot onto a nail. The props department made that shot possible by making a fake nail out of a type of spring-loaded rubber. As Marv steps on the nail, it bends into the sole of his foot rather than causing the painful injury that is shown on screen.
The Backflip Stunt of the Front Steps Was Terrifyingly Real
Stuntmen performed many of the reactions to the booby traps that Kevin set, and the more intensive stunts made the crew nervous.
Director Chris Columbus told Entertainment Weekly, “Even what seems simple, [like] the Joe Pesci character walking up the stairs of the front of the house and doing a backflip, I really thought Troy, our stunt man, had broken his back on that first take. As I said, until we knew those guys were alive and okay, none of that stuff was funny, so I was surprised once we put the film together how well it actually worked for an audience.”
The Stunts Were Done Without a Safety Harness
Home Alone was filmed in an era when the industry had much different safety standards. The movie was on a tight budget, making post-production special effects out of reach. Columbus explained that the stuntmen were working without a harness during filming.
“There were significant stunt tests going on throughout shooting,” said Columbus. During the prep work, “The stunts were tested in the school gymnasium with a lot of pads and a lot of safety harnesses.” But during filming, “We couldn’t put [harnesses] on the actors at the time because we just didn’t have the resources to erase them.”
The BB Gun Sequence Used Hand-painted Animation
After the burglar stuck his head through the doggie door, he was not actually shot by Kevin’s BB gun. To get the effect on screen, filmmakers used a hand-painted animation technique by working directly onto the film reel.
“We paid a guy living in his mother’s basement in Chicago $600 to hand paint that BB going into Marv’s head,” explained Columbus. “A guy with a paintbrush in a basement for six frames hand-painted a BB. This was an $18 million film, so for our budget, I’m pretty happy how it turned out.”
A Mirror Illusion Was Used to Create the Blowtorch Scene
To film the scene where Harry, played by Joe Pesci, has the top of his head burnt by a blowtorch, the filmmakers also used a lo-fi illusion. Because of a special effect technique called Pepper’s Ghost, it only looked like Harry’s head was being set on fire. To create the illusion, a mannequin’s head was set on fire off-camera. Reflective glass was used to superimpose the image of flames onto Harry’s head.
Set Designers Built Fake Basement Stairs
The actual Home Alone house where the movie was filmed did not have exterior stairs leading down to the basement. To capture the scene where Marv slips down the icy basement steps, the set designers built a fake staircase. They got a backhoe, dug along the home’s foundation line, and installed a staircase and fake door. After the shoot was over, the crew filled in the hole and added sod.
Actors Did not Actually Walk Barefoot on Glass Christmas Ornaments
The props department used two techniques to create the scene where the burglar steps barefoot onto the glass Christmas ornaments that Kevin sprinkles near an open window.
Rather than using glass shards, they made fake ornaments from sugar, sometimes called candy glass, to create the transparent, colored spheres. They also gave the actor a pair of rubber feet that he could wear on top of his bare feet. It looked like he was barefoot in the shot, but he was protected by a skin-colored rubber surface.
A Pool Was Used to Film the Neighbor’s Flooded Basement
Basement flooding can be expensive, costing a typical homeowner $25,000 in damages for just one inch of water. The cost of flood damage was too high to film the Wet Bandits’ signature move of leaving the upstairs sink running to flood the home and basement. Instead, the flooded basement scenes were filmed in the local high school’s swimming pool. Decorated with typical basement storage items like a lamp and garden hose, the viewers never guess that this flooded basement is not actually a basement.
The Zipline to the Treehouse Was Real
The McCallister house didn’t have a backyard treehouse when they chose the location for filming. So to create the final chase scene where Kevin escapes to a treehouse in the backyard, the set designers had to build a treehouse. Luckily, the tree was already there. The ramshackle treehouse worked on screen, but the actual homeowners of the Home Alone house thought it was a bit of an eyesore, so they took it down after filming was done.
Stepping on the Toy Cars Became an Iconic Stunt
When Kevin yells, “Come and get me” from the top of the stairs, Harry and Marv rush forward, only to step on some toy cars and take a big fall onto their backs.
Stunt doubles Troy Brown and Leon Delaney made such a big splat during the exaggerated fall that the scene became iconic among stunt doubles. Macat said, “To this day, you’ll talk to stunt people on other movies and they’ll say something like, ‘And then we’ll just do a Home Alone.’ That means that they’re gonna fall and get a lot of air.”