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.
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.
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.
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.
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.