FILM / What a scream: John Hughes wrote some hits. Then he wrote some flops. Now his future rides on Home Alone 2. Sheila Johnston met him

YOU WILL have seen the image around London, the frightened little face, the two hands cupping the ears, the wild eyes fixing you directly, the mouth distended into a cry of anguish. Unmistakable, those posters for Home Alone 2. 'If you look at it I guess it is kind of like Munch's The Scream,' says John Hughes, the film's writer and producer, although he would like to point out that the yell shrilled by his 12-year-old star Macaulay Culkin in no way denotes any dark, Kierkegaardian anxiety. 'In the film, to show his independence, he puts his father's aftershave on his cheeks, and it stings - the gesture was deliberately misinterpreted for the poster.'

Munch's gloomy painting is now well on the road to becoming a kitsch icon (it could also be sighted decorating one of Dame Edna Everage's frocks on a recent show), but Hughes, who briefly studied art, can take the credit for the first push. 'I suppose I've once again invaded the art world. In Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris Bueller has a nervous friend who gets panicked by the number of dots in Seurat's La Grande Jatte, and now when people go to the art museum in Chicago to see that painting they ask the guards, 'Where's the Ferris Bueller painting?' Maybe people will go to the Munch exhibition and ask 'Where's the Macaulay Culkin Scream?' '

It's true that many will find Home Alone, which Hughes wrote and produced, a good deal more familiar. The original film was the most unexpected and spectacular hit of the 1990Christmas season, eventually beating out Batman and The Return of the Jedi to become the third-biggest grossing movie of all time (before allowance is made for inflation, it should be said: when that is done, it falls well out of the running). 'The studio did research and tracking surveys, but there were a lot of adults who weren't gonna say: I can't wait to see Home Alone. But they went anyway - I think for some it's a guilty pleasure,' says Hughes, and it is probably true that less cultural kudos attaches to a viewing of Home Alone than of The Frieze of Life.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York has opened very impressively indeed in America but may be hard-pressed to perform as well in the long term (the first film's success depended on remarkable repeat business): it lacks the surprise element, for one thing; and, while HA1 reigned virtually unchallenged in the family arena, the sequel faces much stiffer competition, from Disney's Aladdin notably. But there's a lot riding on its performance, not least Hughes' future in Hollywood.

He made his name in the Eighties as the King of the Bratpackers: having written, produced and / or directed six teenpix including Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club. Today this looks like a lightweight line- up. But you have to remember that, way back then, his films were positively Shakespearean compared to Porky's and Police Academy, Hollywood's idea of how to play to the groundlings. Porky's saw the average American teenager as a bag of raging hormones. Hughes endowed him with a tortured psyche, even if it was mainly exercised by the dilemma of landing a date for the senior prom.

Since then, however, the 18-25 market has withered and shrivelled, and anyway, Hughes says, he has begun to lose touch: 'I turned into the goofy guy in the bathrobe yelling at my kids to turn the music down.' But in his search for an alternative programme he seemed for a while to have lost his way. There was still the odd hit - Home Alone and the Steve Martin vehicle Planes, Trains and Automobiles - but recently his name has been linked to a line of heavy bellyflops: Uncle Buck, Dutch (briefly released in the UK under the title Driving Me Crazy) and Career Opportunities (which was not released here at all).

And along the way Hughes has acquired a ferocious reputation. 'In a town full of people who are impossible to work for, he's impossible to work for,' wrote Premiere earlier this year. He is the subject of a truly vituperative profile in the current issue of Spy magazine, which portrays him as as a paranoid, capricious, childish bully. He has switched studios three times in the last 10 years. 'What does stroppy mean?' is his first question as I walk through the door (it's unclear just where he had picked up this anglicism). In the course of an hour, the man who has specialised in popular comedy barely cracked a smile, let alone a joke.

Nevertheless he had served a comic apprenticeship contributing to National Lampoon magazine and later writing the successful movie spin-off, National Lampoon's Vacation. And he had chanced his arm as a spare-time jokesmith. 'I'd write 100 jokes a day, and of those I'd pick ten. I'd do this for five days and on Saturdays I'd look in Variety, find out who was touring and send them the 50 jokes. If I could sell one I was happy. I was paid dollars 5 a joke, except for Joan Rivers, who paid me dollars 7. I didn't do it for long and I wasn't very successful, but it gave me a taste for it.' Tell us one, I ask, desperate for levity. 'I can never tell them; I'm not very funny myself.' Pressed, he comes up with: My neighbourhood is so bad that it only had one tree and three people lived in it. He kept on the day job, as an advertising copywriter: in his best-known commercial, for a razor blade, a man tests his shave by rubbing a credit card across his cheek. It was the quintessential Eighties yuppie ad, sensualising money. Mostly, though, he peddled more mundane stuff: 'I had to take a product like a packet of frozen peas and find something inherently dramatic or comic in it. Those little skills came in useful when it came to writing screenplays.' You might say his work is defined by the frozen-pea aesthetic - fast, convenient, reassuringly ordinary and familiar.

Hughes married his high-school sweetheart at 20 and claims that Home Alone was inspired by a family trip to Paris in 1989 - the first time he had been outside America. That little world is the one he fetes in his scripts. 'The first few were just horrendous, then I started to get in my stride. Instead of science-fiction and adventure, I stuck with what I knew, which is middle- class American life. I've not been on a police stake-out, I've never had anyone shoot at me; it's not something I have a taste for.'

Yet there was a larky, faintly anarchic spirit to some of the early work like Ferris Bueller and Weird Science. 'When you're young and full of fire, it comes naturally,' he says. 'Now that Establishment has gone and we, the hippies, have the younger generation starting to throw the rocks at us. I guess we're the enemy.' Certainly, in the teenpix, adults were mostly shadowy, uncomprehending figures and the suburban home was a prison from which to escape to a much more consequential real world of fast cars and persons of the opposite gender.

Hughes' more recent efforts have been sticky celebrations of domestic harmony - the central narrative dynamic of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Driving Me Crazy and both the Home Alone films is the rush home for a big public holiday: the reunification of a dispersed / estranged family around the festive turkey. And that troublesome customer, the teenager, has all but disappeared (note the strictly peripheral role played by Culkin's ornery big brother in the Home Alones).

When extras were needed for one of his movies, a local paper in his hometown of Chicago announced the search for 'John Hughes types (ie no purple Mohawks)'. Everyone understood instantly. His arena is middle-of-the- road, Middle America, the Midwest or (in Home Alone 2) Mid-town Manhattan. The cultural elite - who regarded the Bratpack pictures with a certain respect - might turn up its noses at his more recent movies, but Dan Quayle must love them. He exudes wholesome, conservative, family values. For instance, he chain-smoked furiously throughout our interview (as is his habit), but, the photographer observed afterwards, was anxious to avoid being snapped in the act.

He would describe himself as a populist, yet his humour can sometimes be mean-spirited: he took flak for coarse gags in Sixteen Candles at the expense of an Asian student called Long Dong and, in Uncle Buck, for a high school principle with a large carbuncle on her nose. Some see him as one of the main reasons for the creeping homogenisation of Hollywood.

You could not, in fairness, say that he was anything but correct and courteous during our interview (although you could also not, in honesty, call him charming or warm). The claws extend just for an instant, at a question about one of his less successful recent screenplays, and you glimpse the man who is said to terrorise his minions or to fire them upon a whim. 'Career Opportunities was a horrible, awful experience. I didn't get the opportunity, through a series of rancorous circumstances, to have much impact on the film. With no disrespect, it was miscast. I really should have not done it or done it myself. I pulled back a bit, put a little too much trust in the director and every turn was missed. It was a disaster, an embarrassment and it was dishonest to market the film as coming from the creator of Home Alone. I got a little . . . stroppy about it.'

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York plays across the country. The Macaulay Culkin Scream is on view at the National Gallery until 7 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)