By Brian Skutle
The 1992 film, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” is not the same as the 1997 TV series screenwriter/creator Joss Whedon later made for The WB and UPN, but neither is it far removed from what was to come to television screens (and later, comic books), either. After watching it for the third time in almost thirty years, that comes more into focus.
The director of the “Buffy” movie, Fran Rubul Kuzui, was later a producer with her husband, Kaz Kuzui, on the TV series; this was the last feature she directed, and she never directed an episode of the series. The movie has a much more distinctive comedic tone than the series would ever hue to, although there are certainly episodes of it that are very much comedies set in that universe. That is part of why it has not held up nearly as well as the show that followed; this film feels much closer to “Clueless” and something like “Beverly Hills 90210” than the blend of horror, comedy and teen angst the show would mix together to create a cult classic.
When Kuzui read this, she approached it as a bubbly comedy about a girl tasked with killing vampires, which would have been a solid foundation had the right balance between valley girl cheerleader comedy and Gothic battle against the forces of darkness been accomplished. As Whedon would later say of the movie, “Well, that’s not quite her. It’s a start, but it’s not quite the girl.” The concept Whedon had in mind was not fully realized in the film, but that’s as much on Whedon as it is Rubul Kuzui; the pieces are there for what was to come- they would just require some further development to fully blossom, and a TV series was the best way to do that for “Buffy.”
“[this] film feels much closer to “Clueless” and something like “Beverly Hills 90210” than the blend of horror, comedy and teen angst the show would mix together to create a cult classic.”
The movie begins with Buffy Summers, played here by Kristy Swanson, as a cheerleader at Hemery High School in Los Angeles. When the audience meets her, she is cheering at a game, without many greater concerns beyond shopping and spending times with her friends and her jock boyfriend, Jeffrey. It isn’t long into the film’s running time when she is approached by the mysterious Merrick (Donald Sutherland). Merrick informs her that she is The Slayer, a girl in a long line going back centuries tasked with fighting vampires; he is meant to be her Watcher, whose responsibility it is to train The Slayer.
At first, Buffy does not believe it, until he is able to describe a dream she has had with detail. Even after being convinced of her destiny, Merrick may have bitten off more than he could chew with Buffy, as the sensibilities of a Los Angeles teenager and someone steeped in the lore of vampires is not a match that comes together easily, even when a local master of vampires (Lothos, played by Rutger Hauer) and his gang (including Paul Reubens as his second in command, Amilyn) is looking to attack the school.
When Whedon developed Buffy’s story for television, the movie was not forgotten entirely; Buffy still came from Hemery in Los Angeles, was still a cheerleader and popular girl before she became The Slayer, her first Watcher’s name was Merrick, and she still did substantial damage to Hemery’s gym.
The film, then, became a prequel, of sorts, to the movie, although the two still, resolutely, stand separate from one another in tone and purpose. What remains true about both versions of “Buffy’s” story, and the thing that so distinguished it, at the time, from other teen horror narratives, is that it is a story of female empowerment against the creatures of the night that, more often than not, killed them in horror movies going back to the silent era.
“Whedon’s words ring very true about the film, that “it’s a start, but it’s not quite the girl,” but there is much to like about this low-budget comedy that would, later, blossom into a pop culture phenomenon.”
Rather than be the victim, the female lead was now the hero, and while she wasn’t the first (Ripley, Sarah Conner and Nancy from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” preceded her, among others), her example paved the way for the heroines to come, like Sidney Prescott in the “Scream” movies and a slue of Young Adult literature.
It’s more often diffused by silly comedy in the movie, but Swanson does a good job of conveying the dilemma Buffy finds herself in, trying to balance her normal life with her responsibilities as The Chosen One. Her scenes with Sutherland ground the situation in a way that prove important for us taking this premise seriously; unfortunately, the rest of the film is played with a broad, jokey tone that undercuts that gravity of the story with a silliness that just doesn’t work with the horror elements at play (although Reubens’s death scene is one of the funniest moments in the film).
Whedon’s words ring very true about the film, that “it’s a start, but it’s not quite the girl,” but there is much to like about this low-budget comedy that would, later, blossom into a pop culture phenomenon. The film handles its exposition very efficiently and very effectively, even when the budgetary limits (especially during the Dark Age European flashbacks) are painfully obvious. This has an impressive cast around Swanson beyond Sutherland, Hauer and Reubens, including Luke Perry and pre-stardom roles for David Arquette, Hilary Swank, Ben Affleck and Natasha Gregson-Williams.
The song soundtrack dates the film, but the horror gives composer Carter Burwell an opportunity to do some interesting genre cues apart from his work with the Coen Brothers. And, if the mix between the horror and comedy had been calibrated just a touch more consistently, this would fit right in with the first season of the TV series, which was still finding its feet with uneven episodes like “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” “Teacher’s Pet” and “I, Robot…You, Jane.” Kuzui’s film isn’t the best “Buffy” could get, but the more it gets seen, the more one sees what was to come for the endearingly fashionable Vampire Slayer.