Dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui / Wri. Joss Whedon
Before there was the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was the eponymous movie. Written by the show’s creator Joss Whedon, the film was a modest hit but received lukewarm reviews, or so Wikipedia says. Good luck trying to find a review from that time period on Rotten Tomatoes. It long since has been shadowed by its TV counterpart.
For the record, I’m not here to try and dispute that the show was far more successful, nor that it was far more entertaining for the vast majority of people who’ve seen both incarnations–just google the show for proof. What I can say is that while I have a soft spot for the TV show, its the film that I remember the most, with it even making my top ten list of my favorite films (feel free to make fun of me). While the show is darker and hits far more meaningful and literary notes, it’s the film that is wildly more fun and humorous, being both crass and comedic. Moreover, there is much to love in a film that has a beating heart and twisted jokes. Plus, it’s a call back to the forgotten time known as the 80s to you younger millenials, one that hits the sweet spot of nostalgia, complete with an 80s training montage (more on that later).
I visited this film with faint memories of having seeing it as a kid, along with a little trepidation. I had read over the years that this film was horrible, that it paled in comparison to the show. I felt hesitant, but after recently finishing the show, I felt compelled to see where it all began. And I have to admit, while I can see the reasoning for its harsh comparisons, it can’t be denied that Joss Whedon wrote one hell of a script (which can be found here). There’s a few minor differences between the original draft and what ultimately made it on screen, most notably the ending. Needless to say, the script has darker qualities that would be seen later on. I happen to like both the script and the film in their own unique ways.
For those of you who have seen the show, Buffy is somewhat structured like the first season of the show. We’re first introduced to our titular heroine (Kristy Swanson), a cheerleader for Hemery High School, who happens to be a valley girl. Then we see her group of similar friends, among them a very young Hillary Swank (also don’t miss a young Ben Affleck cameo as a basketball player). She also has a troublesome boyfriend named Jeffery (Randall Batinkoff).
Everything is going great for Buffy until she meets a mysterious man named Merrick (the great Donald Sutherland), who tells Buffy she’s the chosen one–better known as the slayer–and whose birthright is to hunt vampires. Buffy doesn’t believe him until Merrick accurately describes a dream she had as a little girl. Still hesitant, she reluctantly agrees to go the graveyard with Merrick, where they wait for nightfall. Around midnight a vampire crawls out of the grave that Buffy is sitting on and attacks her. Much to her surprise, Buffy is able to kill the beast with a stake to the heart. Fully convinced of her destiny, she goes on to work with Merrick. Cue the training montage. For those of you who like to knock this film for this sequence, you should note that it was Whedon who wrote it in the original script. Furthermore, it’s meant to be campy (a wonderful genre if there ever was one) and carries on a great legacy of montages in actions films from the 70s and 80s (yo Rocky IV).
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a character named Pike (sounds kind of like Spike) who is a rebel that dropped out of high school and works as a mechanic. He’s played by Luke Perry of Beverly Hills 90210 fame, and while a product of his times, is excellent as the lovable loser (really sounds like Spike). We also meet our Big Bad Lothos (Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner fame), who is reminiscent of The Master, complete with an underground lair and pool of blood. At his side is his minion Amilyn, played by the one and only Paul Reuben, who brings a much needed silliness to the material. Again, this is what sets this film apart from the script as well as show. It’s a touch brought on by the director, who provides competent and quirky direction.
As you can tell, the film really plays out the like the first season of the show, as well as any regular season. Buffy fights vampires and becomes fighting partners with Pike, who she ends up falling for (definitely is Spike), and has a showdown with Lothos at her school no less (kind of like season 3). You can guess who wins the fight between good and evil.
So maybe you’re wondering why you should watch this film? First and foremost, Joss Whedon’s fingerprints are all over this film, assuming you admire his work. The film is full of one liners that zing. Take for instance the scene where Buffy is running past her now ex-boyfriend, who happens to be sleeping with her best friend in his car outside of the senior dance (not to be confused with the prom, or any of the other senior dances–another great joke), while in her white dress, perhaps signifying her virginity (in the original script she is definitely not a virgin). Buffy runs past the car, looks at the couple, and exclaims “That was quick!” It’s almost surprising to see a sex joke in the film until you again consider how much this film owes to the 80s, where teen sex comedies reigned, not to make a comeback until 1999 with American Pie, which just so happens to have Alyson Hannigan (hey there Willow). Paul Reuben also steals the show with a humorous death scene that just keeps going…and going…and going. Stay for the credits to see what I mean. It’s silly humor, and while I laughed and enjoyed the hell out of it, others might find the it a little distasteful and kitschy (another great genre).
While Whedon’s one-liners give the film some nice moments what really surprised me was how Buffy is given actual character development. This should be expected if you’ve seen the show, but from what I heard, I didn’t know it was going to be there. Buffy is initially portrayed as a shallow teenager, only interested in her friends and shopping, but gradually sheds the air head lingo as she assumes her responsibility as a slayer (for a film that homages 80s action and teen sex pics, this is pure genius). In a nice visual touch. Buffy starts our wearing posh clothing by but as the film progresses dons a more grungier look. There’s shades of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance in Swanson’s character. Plus she turned out to a total badass in real life.
Bottom line is, the movie has a lot emotional moments that Whedon has come to be known for. While it’s not nearly as deep as the show (although I’d love to have the argument that it is), it’s great to see Whedon’s early effort at tackling the developing maturity of a teenage girl.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a nice throwback to 80s action and teen sex genres, but brings a subtle dose of maturity, although it lacks the emotional punch of the show. It has plenty of laughs as well as (un)expected character development.