Can John Hughes really be blamed for trying to remake ”Home Alone” over and over again? Nah: That prankish live-action cartoon had more spirit — and made more money — than anything else he has touched in years. What John Hughes can be blamed for is the amazing contempt with which he shovels his rehashes at us. Dennis the Menace — written and coproduced by Hughes and directed by Nick Castle — is derived from the long-running Hank Ketcham comic strip, but its unholy mixture of peppy sadism and pious, self-righteous sentiment comes straight from Hughes’ crabbed cinematic heart.
At first, the film follows the disarmingly simple equation of Dennis Mitchell + Mr. Wilson = mayhem. Mason Gamble, as Dennis, doesn’t have Macaulay Culkin’s natural charisma, but he also lacks the lookit-me smugness that marred Culkin’s performance in ”Home Alone 2.” And Walter Matthau is a marvelous Mr. Wilson: Beetle-browed, roaring about in cheesy short-sleeved shirts, he lets you smell the old man’s cologne on this tinpot tyrant.
Things get twisted only in the final half hour, when ”Dennis the Menace” starts aping ”Home Alone.” This time the complacent kiddie brutality gets taken to a low that shocked even this hardened Three Stooges fan. Again, Hughes has a criminal stalk his idealized suburbia and meet a fate out of a Road Runner cartoon. But instead of ”Home Alone”’s comical Harry and Marv we get Christopher Lloyd making like ”Twin Peaks”’ Killer Bob as a psychotic tramp with a switchblade. With his grimy face, rotting teeth, and stringy hair, Lloyd’s character is a homeless guy as Evil Incarnate. And somehow the laughs just don’t come when you watch a happy little blond tyke cover him with welts and set him on fire. With ”Dennis,” Hughes takes har-de-har brutality to new depths — it’s a movie that seems made specifically to blunt the sensibilities.