The Vampire Slayer Diaries

"You ruined my new jacket. Kill him a lot!"

— Amilyn (Paul Reubens)

main poster of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' movie with Kristy Swanson on her knees in workout clothes holding a stake while Luke Perry looks out from behind her / 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Pert. Wholesome. Way lethal.'

The Great Buffy Rewatch is underway. First though, as promised in my preamble to what might but probably won't become a series of running posts during the event, I'm looking back at the movie that started it all.

I guess what actually spawned the TV series, along with the movie's relative success, was the movie's script — and I'm not just talking from a procedural standpoint. We'll get back to that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 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, but 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 roommate who were mildly obsessed with the flick rented it for us to watch one night in '93 or '94. Really all I remembered from that viewing were the broad strokes, the main cast, Paul Reubens' laughably (in a good way) 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 certainly, once I finally got into it, to the WB/UPN run of Buffy.

still from the film of Swanson as Buffy, wearing pink leggings and a varsity jacket, sitting in a graveyard holding a stake

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, and 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 the 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 local delinquent Pike (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 head 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 look like if someone had adapted (or ripped off) Ms. Summers' life for the silver screen and gone for laughs — or, frankly, just 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 embraced to the nth degree — it's the same complaint made about Snakes on a Plane. 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 just looks silly. Merrick's accent wavers; 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.

still from the film of vampiric Rutger Hauer holding the mesmerized Swanson as Buffy

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 (although I never noticed them) 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 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 looks like a young David Johansen as Buster Poindexter crossed with Jim Carrey, making the cameo by the future star even more surreal, but I didn't catch who that guy actually was.

The movie is hardly all bad and there are certainly glimmers in the script of the Joss Whedon we know as creator of 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 counters pedantically, "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 ridiculous 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 — although Lothos (whose portrayal by Hauer reminds me of Anthony Hopkins in one of his slumming-for-a-paycheck roles) gets 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, since 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 looking most human, oddly enough, since as the head vampire 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.

still from the movie with Perry and Swanson in a tuxedo and ball gown at the prom crouched over a dead body

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 and still married in the movie, come to Sunnydale for a fresh start in Episode 1.1, "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 a miniseries from 1999 titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Origin — now available in the first Buffy the Vampire Slayer 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 only with a 4-minute featurette made during filming, a theatrical trailer, and a pair of TV spots, which are neat to see for 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."

alternate movie poster showing Buffy from the bust down in cheerleading outfit holding a pom-pom in one hand and a stake in the other / 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer: She knows a sucker when she sees one.'

BTVS movie posters and stills © 1992 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

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Stefan Blitz said...

Seth Green was cut from the finished film, but a still of him as a vampire appeared on the back of the VHS box.

The Buster Poindexter-esque actor you mentioned was Sasha Jenson, who also co-starred with Affleck the following year in Richard Linkletter's DAZED & CONFUSED.

Other familiar faces are Thomas Jane and Stephen Root.

Finally, and this is for some obscure trivia buffs out there, my college friend Ross Katz was the film's set PA. He has since been nominated for two best picture Oscars as the producer of LOST IN TRANSLATION and IN THE BEDROOM and recently was nominated for many awards for the HBO film, TAKING CHANCE, that he wrote and directed with Kevin Bacon.

See, it always comes back to Kevin Bacon.

Arben said...

I don't think I've seen the movie since it came out, but I mostly remember it as a dopey lark with an awesome title. (The series was a revelation.) Your review almost tempts me to see it again, only for curiosity's sake, but the review is probably better than the film. I do remember finding Reubens, Hauer, and Sutherland totally trayf — i.e., ham and cheese.

Teebore said...

Excellent write-up Blam. Like Arben I've seen the film only once, many years ago, long before I fell in love with the series.

I too am somewhat curious to revisit it, knowing full well what I'm getting into it.

It's interesting how, despite the differences between the movie and the show both in terms of minutae (no Vamp face) and tone (more campy) a lot of what set the TV show apart is on display in the film: the contrast between the goofy and the serious in the title that upends expectations, the pro-female, strong heroine characterization (on display even in the movie poster; not only is the ditzy cheerleader in the foreground with a boy cowering behind her, that boy is LUKE PERRY, at the height of his Dylan McKay, bad boy, modern day James Dean popularity).

It may not be the best lead-in to the TV series, in terms of story and tone, but the seeds are definitely there in Whedon's script.