The Vampire Slayer Diaries
As I noted last week, I’ve taken a fresh look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer — the original film. My impetus was Nikki Stafford’s rewatch, now underway, of the WB/UPN TV series that the movie spawned. (I suppose what actually spawned the series was the movie’s script, but we’ll get back to that.)
Buffy was released to US theaters by Fox on July 31st, 1992, written by Joss Whedon and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui. It was substantially rewritten, Whedon has indicated in numerous interviews, although he remains the sole credited writer. And if you were judging it on its own, you’d figure Whedon at least had a way with quirky, campy, Hollywood teen action/comedy.
I mentioned in my first Buffy post that a friend and her flatmate who were mildly obsessed with the flick rented it for us to watch one night in ’94. Really all I’d remembered from that viewing were the broad strokes, the main cast, Paul Reubens’ laughably interminable death scene, and a generally amusing tackiness — nothing that compared to, say, your better coming-of-age John Hughes films, or to 1987’s cult-classic modern vamp movie The Lost Boys, nor to Buffy’s superlative TV incarnation.
The main cast and broad strokes are as follows: Kristy Swanson is Buffy Summers,
a popular, self-absorbed high-school cheerleader in Los Angeles with vividly recurring dreams of other times. A man named Merrick (Donald Sutherland) shows up one day
to pronounce her the Chosen One, a girl born once in a generation destined to be the Slayer; he is her Watcher. She, of course, doesn’t believe him and wants nothing to do with slaying vampires even after the proof is staring her in the face and breathing down her neck, but she begins to accept her role when vampire king Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his minions wreak havoc around town — soon targeting her directly, as Lothos apparently finds killing Slayers particularly sweet. Buffy and Pike, a local delinquent played by Luke Perry, are drawn together by newfound senses of duty and, ultimately, attraction, since this is a Hollywood teen action/comedy. Everything comes to a boil during a dance in the high-school gym.
If you watch the film now, having seen anything of the TV show, it comes across as almost a parody of that show — what, in the world of BTVS: The Series, it might be like if a schlock producer had adapted (or ripped off) Ms. Summers’ life for the silver screen and gone for laughs — or, frankly, what you’d expect of a movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except that while it didn’t quite turn expectations for a project with that name on their proverbial head, the way the show ultimately did, neither did it quite push them to a satisfyingly gonzo extent. Po-mo, ironic, whatever, the premise and title of Buffy the Vampire Slayer need to be fully embraced. The staking action is weak — in the earliest scenes, Buffy doesn’t drive the wood in deep or even straight, and since there’s no dust-poof like in the series it simply looks ridiculous. Merrick’s accent wavers such that I’m not sure if he’s supposed to sound British or just patrician. And at many points the ADR (additional dialogue recording, known also as looping, done for scenes when the dialogue recorded on-set wasn’t delivered right or location noises spoiled its quality) is really, really bad. Yet all of those are flat-out faults, rather than intentional or “found” inconsistencies presented with the wink that accompanies some of the hammier performances.
Seeing the film today also reveals faces unfamiliar at the time it was released. The
head of Buffy’s clique, Kimberly, is played by Hilary Swank, several years shy of her Oscar for Boys Don’t Cry. David Arquette is Pike’s buddy, Benny. I nearly sprained my brain when an uncredited Ben Affleck popped up as a rival high school’s basketball player (his one line, I’m pretty sure, dubbed); IMDB says that we also get an uncredited Ricki Lake and Seth Green. Green’s bit part is notable from a Buffy standpoint, as he’d later play Oz on the TV series, but I couldn’t find him. It was also strange to see popular character actor Stephen Root as the principal in light of his turn as a vampire on True Blood. Affleck’s on-court vampire nemesis, whoever he is, resembles a young David Johansen as Buster Poindexter crossed with Jim Carrey.
The movie is hardly all bad and there are certainly glimmers in the script of the Joss Whedon touch we know from Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. After Merrick tells Buffy that the stomach cramps she feels warn her of proximity to the undead, one can easily hear Sarah Michelle Gellar delivering Swanson’s retort, “Great... My secret weapon is PMS.” (“It’s not a weapon,” Merrick pedantically counters, “it’s an alert system.”) Swanson is entertainingly vacuous early on and acquits herself fine in the movie’s predictable march through Buffy’s training sequences and development of a conscience. Merrick wearing his gloves, fedora, and trenchcoat no matter the setting is the kind of commitment of which the film could have used more if it were going for all-out, straight-faced goof, much like that ludicrous death scene that Reubens milks as Lothos’s henchman Amilyn. Reubens, as a kind of vampiric Renfield to the film’s Dracula figure, has some good lines and a truly creepy vibe that’s more fun than his boss’s. Lothos, whose portrayal by Hauer reminds me of Anthony Hopkins in one of his slumming-for-a-paycheck roles, does get some choice dialogue of his own — from telling Amilyn, “Honestly, I don’t know how you made it through the Crusades,”
to attempting to mesmerize Buffy with the Corinthians quote, “It’s time to put away childish things,” one of the lines that in context hints at greater dimensions to the
ages-old Watcher/Slayer/Lothos dynamic.
Among the differences between the film’s Slayer mythology and the TV series’ is that Merrick, the only Watcher, is fated to die and be reborn throughout time, which might be what happens to the Chosen One, too, given that Swanson appears in period dress as Slayers past in Buffy’s dreams. In addition to the aforementioned lack of dust-poofs,
the vamps are permanently fanged-up with pointy ears, paler skin than generally used on the show, and long fingernails. Lothos actually looks most human, odd since as the vampire king he’s the closest thing in the film to the series’ Master (who, in turn, has morphed over the centuries into a harsh Nosferatu-style creature). The movie’s vamps can also fly.
The film isn’t exactly canonical prelude to the TV series, but Whedon did choose to springboard the series from his original Buffy script, which (mild spoiler alert) ended with the high-school gym burning down during the final battle. Buffy and her mother, barely glimpsed in the movie, come to Sunnydale for a new start in Episode 1, “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, after Buffy is expelled. This places the series’ version of the events of the film (or, again, of the film’s original script), for you continuity-minded folks, in 1996 rather than 1992; Merrick (portrayed by Richard Riehle, not Sutherland) is briefly seen during flashbacks in Part 1 of the Season Two finale, “Becoming”. While not as canonical as the current Season Eight, since the TV show was still in production and Whedon didn’t directly oversee them, the earlier Buffy comics from Dark Horse often attempted to fill in gaps in the characters’ backstories, and the 1999 miniseries Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Origin — now available in the first BTVS Omnibus collection — finds Buffy recalling the events of the film script from within the perspective of the show.
The movie’s DVD supplements the 86-minute flick with just a 4-minute featurette, a theatrical trailer, and a pair of TV spots, which are fun as contemporary context. Dedicated Buffy fans should certainly check out the film if only for curiosity’s sake or
a kind of parallel-world view of how Buffy Summers was confronted with her heritage before decamping to Sunnydale — and don’t skip the first half or so of the end credits, which among other kickers have legendary gossip columnist Liz Smith interviewing students after the vampire attack, in familiar denial over what they witnessed. (“They had fangs. They were biting people. They had this look in their eyes — totally cold, animal. I think they were Young Republicans.”)
I can’t help but wonder about an alternate history in which the film was a major hit: Where did they go from there?
BTVS movie posters and stills © 1992 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Related: My Buffy Summer • Not So Frabjous • Cabin
Fever • House of the Rising Moon • Nothing Special