Gremlins (1984): A Modern Christmas Classic

Editor’s Note: Although “Meet Me at the Soda Fountain” tends to focus on films from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, I do sometimes let a film from the later part of the 20th century slide through – hey, if TCM can do it, so can I! 😉

Gremlins (1984) will always hold a special place in my heart: it’s the first film that I ever saw in a movie theater. My parents took my sister and I to see it at the old Cineplex Eaton Centre when we were kids. At ages four and six respectively, we were so young that our sneakers barely touched the sticky floors and when Spike (the leader of the Gremlins) leapt out of a Christmas tree, my sister literally jumped out of her seat. 

“That’s it!” my father exclaimed. “We’re going home!”

I feigned annoyance at my sister for causing me to miss the rest of the movie but the truth was that I was petrified of the “little green monsters” too. For at least the next five years, I would sleep with the covers pulled tightly over my head so that “the gremlins couldn’t get me”.  (And to this day the Johnny Mathis Christmas song Do You Hear What I Hear? fills me with unspeakable terror).

“I thought it was supposed to be a kid’s movie,” my dad grumbled on the drive home. Well, Gremlins is kind of a kid’s movie and it also kind of isn’t. The film tells the tale of Billy (Zach Galligan), a wide-eyed teenager whose father gifts him with a mysterious (and adorable) pet for Christmas. The creature is a “Mogwai” (Billy’s father names him Gizmo) and he comes with three rules: 

1. No bright lights, especially sunlight as it can kill him. 

2. Keep him away from water: don’t get him wet.

3. Don’t feed him after midnight. *

Needless to say, the good-intentioned but slightly clueless Billy breaks all three rules and before you can say “holy night”, hordes of little green monsters, with a penchant for junk food and wreaking havoc on electronics, have descended upon the sleepy town of Kingston Falls on Christmas Eve. 

Gremlins is one of those rare instances where contrasting (even conflicting) ingredients work together to create a compelling and satisfying treat: it is both a horror movie and a comedy. Its biting social satire works in spite of the fact that the movie contains a ridiculous amount of product placement (“Milk Duds…”) and was released on the heels of a huge merchandising campaign that included Gizmo dolls and Gremlins’ gummy bears (hence why my dad expected a warm and fuzzy kid’s flick). 

The film has also proven itself to be prescient. Some of the characters in Kingston Falls express a fear of machines and redevelopment – today those fears are being actualized in self-checkout machines, automation and job loss and lack of affordable housing. Then there’s the very real horror of the disastrous effect that all of that post-World War II consumerism has had on our environment. “With Mogwai comes much responsibility,” Mr. Wing (Keye Luke) admonishes near the end of the film, “But you didn’t listen. And you see what happens! You do with Mogwai what your society has done with all of nature’s gifts.” 

The movie closes with Billy’s father (Hoyt Axton) warning the audience: “If your air conditioner goes on the fritz or your washing machine blows up or your video recorder conks out…before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds. Because ya never can tell – there just might be a gremlin in your house.”

Gremlins manages to be both a critique and a celebration of consumerism.  Making it the perfect modern Christmas movie. 

*If you can’t feed the Mogwai after midnight, when can you start feeding him?  At dawn? At noon? Does anyone know? I annoy my partner every Christmas with this burning question.

Hello, is it Jean you’re looking for?

Jimmy & Jean: The Public Enemy (1931)

My partner and I are looking forward to attending the 29th Vintage Film Festival at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. The Festival runs from Friday, October 21st – Sunday, October 23rd. I am honored to have been asked to be the speaker at the Festival’s Brown Bag Lunch seminar on the Sunday. I will be speaking on the topic of “Dangerous Dames: the Women of Pre-Code Gangster Movies”.

As such, I thought it was a good time to reshare an essay that I wrote a couple of years ago about one of my favorite “dames”, Jean Harlow. The essay, Jean Harlow: My Kind of Dame, was published in 2020 on the Inanna Publications’ blog. You can read it here.

One of the topics that I will be discussing during my talk is the importance of Harlow’s casting in the influential Pre-Code gangster movie The Public Enemy (1931).

Hope to see you at the Festival!

THAT GIRL (Inspired by the 1942 movie Cat People)

Selfie and fiction inspired by Cat People (1942)

THAT GIRL

Flash Fiction by Heather Babcock, 2022

Even before they found the body, we talked about that girl. 

“She looks like a cat,” my husband said, the day that Lola arrived in Gaslight Gables. 

He had said it casually, almost dismissively, like the way you’d say “the sun’s come out” or “it’s gone cold outside.” But Lola did look like a cat, with her yellow hair, moon shaped eyes and sharp little teeth. And the way she moved! It was as though her body didn’t really belong to her, like it was just some exotic, fantastically shaped instrument hanging from her neck. 

Lola liked to stare – she was always staring at everyone around her and if you smiled at her she’d never smile back, she’d just keep staring. I did see her smile once, only once, and I’d swear to you that when she did, razor blades fell out of her mouth.  

On the day that the body was discovered, we clapped our hands to our cheeks like that kid from Home Alone and arranged our faces into Edvard Munch masks of horror. 

“Shocking!” we cried, stuffing our fists into our mouths to keep from laughing. “It’s all so shocking!” 

And long after the body had gone cold and the reporters went away, we still talked about Lola.

We talked about that girl until the blood dripped down our chins. 

***

(This flash fiction was inspired by one of my favorite movies, Cat People (1942). I may eventually turn this into something longer…a novella perhaps.)

Classic Hollywood’s Top Five Greatest Scream Queens

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes: Janet Leigh, Psycho (1960)

Where have all the Scream Queens gone?

I asked myself this question a few years ago, while watching a 2017 reboot of King Kong in which the main female character, unlike Fay Wray in the 1933 original, never screams. Not once. I’ve since noticed this “no-scream” trend with other recent action and horror films (a notable exception being Annabelle Wallis in the surprisingly campy 2021 release Malignant). Is it that today the Scream Queen is considered un-PC? Do filmmakers worry that showing a woman character screaming will render her weak and helpless? If so, this kind of thinking is nothing more than misogyny disguised as feminism.

What I lack in bodily strength, I make up for in lung power. My scream has frightened off would-be attackers. My scream saved me (once) from being raped. My scream is not shameful. My scream is a weapon. My scream is powerful.

So without further adieu, all hail The Soda Fountain’s Top Five Hollywood Scream Queens of all time. Distressed Dames, yes. Damsels in Distress? Never.

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Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)

By Heather Babcock, 2021

Red lipstick made me do it.

The sleek, white plastic tube of flame-orange wax called out to me from the bowels of the Zellers’ cosmetic aisle.

The year was 1988 and I was ten years old. At home, a large poster of Madonna, in character for Who’s That Girl (1987), hung over my bed: clad in fishnets, a leather jacket and fingerless gloves. More intimidating than the revolver in her hands was the stark red lipstick on her face. Fierce. Fabulous. I didn’t understand why the other girls at my school didn’t like her. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick too.

Every Saturday, my mother would go grocery shopping at the Kipling Queensway Mall and my dad would give my sister and I a dollar each to buy either trash or a treat at the mall’s dollar store or Zellers. But this Saturday, I didn’t feel like a chocolate bar or a bag of chips. I didn’t need another whoopee cushion or copy of Tiger Beat magazine.

I wanted that lipstick.

It didn’t matter that it cost a little more than the dollar my dad had given me. To my ten-year-old mind, that was an unfairness that could be easily corrected. And so, taking advantage of my then-mousy invisibility, I quietly slipped the coveted tube into the pocket of my Levi’s. I don’t remember feeling nervous or even giddy about it and I certainly didn’t feel guilty – that red lipstick belonged to me. It was mine. I did however make the colossal mistake of boasting to my sister about the steal, in proud whispers, on the ride home.

Hey Daaaa-dddd,” she called out smugly. “Heather stole a lipstick!

And so, before I knew it, I was back in the Zellers department store, handing over my swag and stammering out an apology to the bored teenage clerk whose only response to my foray into crime was a glassy-eyed shrug.

Continue reading “Red Lipstick Made Me a Criminal (and a few other fun facts about your favorite cosmetic)”

Garbo and Walter

Artwork of Garbo and old movie theatre created with public domain photos

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

Nostalgia is less a yearning for the past than it is a desire to dream again. My loveliest memories are of days spent dreaming.

Like the summer I turned sixteen. Nothing very tangible happened to me that summer; I didn’t get felt up at the drive-in, nor did I get drunk with the carnies behind the funhouse at the CNE. I was never grounded and nobody ever kissed me.

But it was a quiet, pleasant summer. The air was sticky sweet, like strawberry popsicles, and the skies were full of bumble-bees as plump and lazy as well loved cats. I spent my mornings eating stale chocolate chip cookies and licking envelopes for the Cancer Society, an exciting volunteer job because it required me to take two buses and the subway, even though it was in my hometown of Etobicoke.

In the early 1990s, Etobicoke was a juxtaposition of mom & pop milk shops and corporate Kmarts; of shiny new office towers and oak trees as old as elephants. Substitute “Costco” for “Kmart” and “condos” for “office towers” and it’s pretty much the same today.

Continue reading “Garbo and Walter”