The secret horrors of John Hughes’ holiday movies

A photo from the film 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation'
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
(Getty Images)

A husband and wife return home from a night of merriment. The neighborhood is a quiet, snow-covered vista — idyllic, something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Yet, something’s not quite right. Next door, a tree lies in the neighbors’ yard, uprooted like it was ripped from earth by an unholy beast. “Looks like the toad overestimated the height of his living room ceiling,” the woman says.

As if on cue, her neighbors’ garage door opens, revealing a man in a hockey mask. He walks with menacing intent —brandishing a chainsaw and backlit in murky yellow. When the couple asks him where he’s going to fit a tree that big, the man in the hockey mask threatens to savagely assault both of them with it. He punctuates this statement by revving the chainsaw and wielding it over his head.

‘Tis not a scene from an ‘80s slasher, but “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” a completely deranged film that’s long been a standard in the lexicon of holiday movies. If you’re a Christmas-celebrating person (or even if you’re not), there’s a good chance that you’ve watched it recently. Even if you haven’t, the images from it have been burned into your brain: Uncle Eddie dumping raw sewage in Clark’s yard; Clark stammering maniacally in front of an attractive mall employee; Uncle Lewis blowing up the entire house with his stogie. It’s only because these images are so ingrained in us that we can’t see how wild and horrific they actually are.

And that’s the magic of John Hughes, the writer/director whose saccharine slapstick became an entire genre unto itself. Hughes’ name is synonymous with romantic, stylized depictions of youth in films like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club,” which effectively captured the ennui of White upper-middle class 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 elicit emotional extremes in the viewer. It’s 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 movies introduced many of us to tropes of the genre, making him one of America’s greatest secret horror directors. If nudged just a little, it wouldn’t take that much work to turn any of his holiday films into straight-up fright flicks.

Clark Griswold, the original Patrick Bateman

Hughes is especially adept at seeing the underlying tensions that the holiday season brings out. If there ever was a true American Psycho, it’s Clark Griswold. Even before the financial pressure of his missing bonus check finally breaks him, he fills every scene of “Christmas Vacation” with a barely suppressed, wild-eyed mania — similar to Toni Collette’s performance in “Hereditary.” Clark’s quest for a “good old-fashioned family Christmas” borders on obsessive.

Does he dig the Christmas tree out with his bare hands? Does he hallucinate a topless woman in the imaginary pool in his backyard? Does he sit in a freezing attic for hours, watching home movies? Does he threaten his son with a chainsaw? The answer to all of these is yes. For all intents and purposes, Clark is not a well man. And when he finally snaps, he goes on a spree of verbal and psychological abuse — berating his family and destroying his house (chainsawing through your own banister = totally normal).

Let’s not forget the general atrocities that happen around him: A cat gets torched and Clark hardly feels a thing. Uncle Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss with the intention of... what, torture the bonus check out of him? It’s fitting that the final image in “Christmas Vacation” is a flaming Santa sled, signifying Clark’s complete transformation into Christmas’ new dark lord. “I did it,” he says, gazing absently at the full moon.

Rage manifested in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”

Neal Page from “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” has a lot in common with Clark Griswold. The straight-laced grump — played by Steve Martin — finds himself under intense pressure to return home for Thanksgiving, but cannot seem to rise above the nightmarish cycle of events that plagues him at every turn. Both Page and Griswold are men whose sanity buckles under the pressure of delivering memorable holidays, however, Neal’s torment is more insular and private.

At the heart of his problems is John Candy’s character, Del Griffith — an agent of chaos who always seems to appear when Neal is at his lowest. Del is less of a person than a manifestation of Neal’s hatred and anger, almost like a Mr. Hyde/Tyler Durden sort of thing. Is Del a demon trying to provoke Neal’s baser instincts (remember the scene when he literally turns into the devil as they drive between two upcoming semis?) or is Del just a product of Neal’s repressed id? Try watching “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” with the idea that Del only exists in Neal’s head, and it mostly works.

The “Nightmare” of “Home Alone”

But of all the holiday horrors Hughes unleashed, none felt so potent as the home-invasion terror of “Home Alone.” Stripped of its adorable star and sentimentality, the premise of “Home Alone” is scarier than “The Strangers,” “Straw Dogs,” “Last House on the Left” and many other staples of the home-invasion subgenre. In fact, the film pretty much has to be a comedy in order to deal with not only the violation of our safe spaces, but the unspeakable notion of tormenting a child.

For horror fans, “Home Alone” feels like it repurpose a lot of the themes horror legend Wes Craven became known for. Craven’s films often asked, “What happens when our safe spaces aren’t safe anymore?” “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 houses. The similarities between “Home Alone” and other horror films aren’t just thematic, either. When Nancy battles Freddy Krueger, she uses the same type of Rube Goldberg traps that Kevin McAllister would later use against The Wet Bandits.

The holidays are rife with horror — financial stress, unwanted guests, emotional weight and mental degradation. John Hughes understood this. On the surface, his films are bright, syrupy and funny, but there’s a sinister undercurrent that runs through them. They’re violent, and just a tad sadistic. When Clark Griswold gets a ladder to the nose, or when Harry from “Home Alone” gets tarred and feathered, we have to laugh. Otherwise, we’d be screaming.