Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Heath Holland On...Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

by Heath Holland
Sometimes great things have humble beginnings. In this case, VERY humble.

The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which aired from 1997 until 2003, is still one of my all-time favorite shows. The brainchild of Joss Whedon, this twisted horror concept came along at just the right time for me and was a revelation for exploring relatable drama against a backdrop of monsters, demons, and apocalyptic scenarios. It defined itself as a hit with viewers not just in their teens and early twenties, but across all ages with effective storytelling, likable characters, and gut-wrenching turns. While I’m not quite a superfan who declares Joss Whedon as my master, I do think the writer-turned-director has a profound understanding of the human condition and inherently knows what makes a good story.

1992’s very flawed (but somehow still enjoyable) feature film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Whedon’s first crack at creating his universe. The concept for the film is the same one that Whedon would mine five years later for television: an attractive, unsuspecting blonde girl walks into an alley where she is stalked by a monster. Blonde girl kills monster. Blonde girl has all the power. It’s a very pro-feminist idea, and one that had been knocking around Whedon’s head for a while. Before Buffy, Whedon had been toying around with an earlier idea called “Rhonda the Immortal Waitress.” By affectionately subverting traditional horror tropes and gender roles and toying with the concept of the “final girl,” Whedon had done something revolutionary.
The premise of the 1992 movie is almost identical to the one of the show. An airheaded popular girl from southern California one day discovers that she is the latest in a long line of slayers, chosen girls who are destined to fight vampires. She has a watcher who must train her for the coming threat to humanity. Meanwhile, all she wants to do is hang out with her friends, be a cheerleader, and enjoy being a teenager. Comedy and drama ensues, with a little monster killing thrown in just for fun.

While I’m not claiming that the Buffy movie changed anything in Hollywood (no one cared), I have to give it some credit for being an early example of revisionist horror. The thing that Scream did a few years later that made it so fresh and appealing was take a stale concept that everyone was familiar with and twist it around. What Joss Whedon was thinking when he dreamed up the character of Buffy seems to be a precursor to that idea. By taking the tired idea of vampires stalking their prey and flipping it so that the vampires don’t stand a chance, Whedon was thinking outside the horror box. It’s the same kind of concept switching that led a bunch of writers and directors to follow suit, making the whole revisionist thing so popular that it was ultimately played out by the end of the decade. Again, not as much of this shows up in the movie as was in Whedon’s original script, but the bones are there for something much more progressive and unique. The story is clearly written by a guy who loves horror and loves subverting our expectations to tell a great story. Maybe that’s why Whedon was later able to co-write one of the best horror movies of all time with Cabin in the Woods.
The movie that debuted in 1992 was not what Joss Whedon wrote. While he did write the script (his first feature film screenplay) and you can see flashes of what would become his trademark dialogue and his characterization, he’s been vocal about how frustrated and unhappy he was that the studio executives changed his story into something much lighter and insubstantial, dumbing it down and making it more appealing to the mainstream. It was so challenging for him that he actually left the set one day out of exasperation and didn’t come back. While it’s unfortunate that we wouldn’t get to see what he REALLY intended for the characters until a few years later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not totally without value. I like it a lot for what it is.

One of the real draws to watching this mediocre movie is the cast. The starring roles are all populated by recognizable faces. Kristy Swanson (Dude, Where’s My Car?) is Buffy, Donald Sutherland (MASH) plays her watcher Merrick, Luke Perry (Beverly Hills 90210) is the bad boy love interest who is mostly useless, Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) is the vampire Lothos, and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman himself) is a 1200-year-old vampire clad in leather named Amilyn. For me, Paul Reubens is the real draw here; for one thing, he appears to be having the time of his life playing a character that doesn’t wear a bow tie. It’s a fact that Reubens spent the bulk of the 1980s devoting all of his time and energy to building the Pee Wee Herman brand. He didn’t make appearances as himself on talk shows, meaning that the bulk of his appearances and guest spots in media were as his famous character in an attempt to protect the brand. After a personally challenging year in 1991 that meant stepping away from Pee Wee indefinitely, Reubens re-emerged in 1992 with more mature performances as both the Penguin’s father in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and here as Amilyn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I have to imagine that it was freeing to embrace a darker character that was a polar opposite to his most famous creation. He seems to be relishing every moment that he has on screen. He gets to say things like “kill him a lot,” and he enjoys one of the most over-the-top death scenes ever committed to film.
Kristy Swanson does a good job at playing a believable teenager who is challenged to be something greater. There’s not a ton of heavy lifting, but what she does is believable enough. Kiefer’s dad, Donald Sutherland, brings gravity and professionalism to his role as Merrick, the mysterious watcher. Rutger Hauer brings the same to his role as the big bad guy Lothos, lending both of their roles the same kind of elder-statesmen class that Alec Guinness brought to a little movie about a farm boy fighting an evil empire a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Their presence elevates the picture and gives it a pedigree that the material itself doesn’t warrant. Both actors do have reputations as being difficult to work with: Wil Wheaton (Stand By Me) has called Rutger Hauer a nightmare, and Joss Whedon is on record as saying that Donald Sutherland gave a good performance but re-wrote most of his dialog and made it unintelligible. He’s also frequently quoted as calling Sutherland a dick for his behavior during filming. Everyone seems to be doing their best with their performances, though. For the most part, Luke Perry just brings a soul patch.

Grandma-friendly facial hair and dickish behavior aside, what’s really fun about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is watching all the people who weren’t famous at the time but soon would be. There are a CRAZY amount of young actors who would soon be major players in Hollywood. This is one of David Arquette’s first movie roles. Future-Oscar-winner Hilary Swank makes her feature film debut here as a ditzy valley girl. Ben Affleck has one line while Seth Green has none (he’s in the movie for about three seconds). Watch for quick appearances by Alexis Arquette (RIP) and Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash, too. Sasha Jensen from Halloween 4 and Dazed and Confused is in the cast, as is Thomas Jane and Ricki Lake. Stephen Root (Office Space) plays the high school principal, and Buffy’s mom is played by Candy Clark from American Graffiti. You could make a drinking game out of watching this movie.
Directing all of this is Fran Rubel Kuzui, the wife of Japanese producer Kaz Kuzui. The Kuzuis were instrumental in getting this project discovered and financed, and also played a crucial role in the development of the television series. Fun fact: the Kuzuis are also responsible for bringing South Park to Japan. Prior to helming this movie, Fran Kuzui only had one directing credit, which was a 1988 movie called Tokyo Pop, which is about an American musician who travels to Japan and falls in with a band. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is her second and last directorial effort. I wish I could say this was a shame, but there’s really nothing in Buffy that jumps off the screen as far as style or composition. It’s just like every other middling movie that played on cinema screens in 1992.

Were it not for the brilliant TV show that it eventually birthed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer would just be a forgettable twist on an old horror concept. On its own, it isn’t bad; frankly, it’s not really anything. It’s not particularly scary, violent, funny, or well-made. But when put into context as the thing that started what would turn into a behemoth, some of its charms shine through, and there are moments in this movie when what we see on screen actually comes close to living up to potential. These moments are few and far between, but they are there for those willing to look. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the goofy movie with the weird name, is a neat little oddity that’s still fun to watch and explore around this time of the year, especially if you’ve ever considered yourself a fan of the ground-breaking television show. It’s also evidence that even some of the best writers and directors often have less-than-stellar beginnings.


  1. Yessssss. Everyone get their BUFFY on this Scary Movie Month. Well done, Heath.

  2. Replies
    1. Fla...Flame...Flames. Flames. On the side of my face...

    2. All I'm saying is if you made like a neat diorama and you showed it to Swanson she'd be like "oh, that's cool." If you showed it to Gellar she be like "that's stupid!"

    3. If you wanted to hurt me, Dr. Riske, you've succeeded. I actually like both but I have to agree with Mrs. White.

  3. I am actually a superfan and I do claim Joss Whedon as my master. I love the movie and the show in completely different ways. There are glimpses of what the show would be but never really represented Joss' vision. I agree with most of what you're saying but I prefer Luke Perry's performance to Rutger Hauer or Donald Sutherland. Rutger Hauer's Cesar Romero impression is pretty spot on. "I'm not shaving my fucking mustache for this part!" Liking this movie at all depends on how you feel about Paul Ruebens' performance. He knows exactly what he's doing and you either love it or hate it. I love it. Great article! Any Buffy I can get, I will take. Time for a gritty reboot?

  4. Luke Perry's name is PIKE. Then in the series we got Spike. :)

    Whedon hated the fact that Donald Sutherland changed every single line of dialogue to fit how he wanted the information to come across.

  5. I saw the movie in the cinema, and didn't think about it much afterwards. A few years later, I was reading an SF news magazine. Starlog or something like that. I saw they were making a Buffy TV series. Huh. I wasn't impressed. A couple of years after that, I just happened to be watching the right station at the right time to discover my new favourite show.

    When the Stargate TV series came along, I wasn't so skeptical.

  6. Funny how the Japanese Kuzuis seemed to take such a liking to the Buffy idea. But maybe not if you entertain the idea that Buffy is based on Sailor Moon as I do.