Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui
Written by Joss Whedon
Release Date: July 31st 1992
The Buffy movie is its own thing, in every way. Nobody brings it up in conjunction with the hugely popular television series except when talking about how the series was a success and the film wasn’t, and armed with the knowledge of seven seasons of the television run, five seasons of its spin-off Angel and every fibre of its identity dominated by the visual of Sarah Michelle Gellar armed with a stake (think of any DVD, comic book, novel or video game cover), it’s strange to return to the movie that started it all, released a good five years before the premiere of ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’, and be greeted with the image of Kristy Swanson in the title role.
I had seen the movie first. I rented the video somewhere around late 1992 or 1993 (the actual VHS release date alludes me) and loved it, although it probably worried my parents that nine-year-old me was having a blast watching a movie with vampires being staked every ten minutes along with a high body count.
Because of that, I was excited upon the premiere of the television series when it finally made it to UK and Irish television screens (through the BBC in the UK and TV3 in Ireland, the latter showing episodes weeks before their British terrestrial premiere). I had read interviews and coverage of the series in many of the genre magazines I bought at the time, particularly one called XPose which was devoted to the influx of supernatural television series at the time, and sat down in eager anticipation at the feature length pilot when it debuted.
I was probably one of the few feeling that way because Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the big screen was not a smash hit, not a pop culturally defining franchise and had been pretty much all but disowned by Joss Whedon.
Returning to the movie nearly thirty years after its debut and knowing what indirect impact it would eventually have is a strangely discerning experience. One can see the intentions behind the movie, and certainly those intentions would come to the fore come March 1997, but there is a feeling that something is lost in translation during the film’s ninety-minute running time.
The elements are all present and there are even images and visuals that would be given a redux on the television series that one totally forgets were there from the beginning, but one can see why Joss Whedon insisted on having a heavier influence on the production of the television series. As showrunner, he became something of a television auteur, and even if not credited as a writer on the episode (the series surrounded itself with one of the very best writers room’s in televisions series, ditto Angel), you could feel his presence off screen, ensuring that things were just right.
The movie retains some of the intentions that Whedon wanted for his character and the story; he had said in countless interviews how badly he felt for the blonde haired girl who frequently got murdered in the alley in so many horror films and always wished she’d fight back and get away. The horror genre, particularly the slasher movie, has always had a strange relationship with feminism and its female characters; while slasher movies have frequently dispatched so many women in violent death, they have also resorted to ‘the final girl’ with the sole survivor of the killing sprees perpetrated by the like Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and his mother and Ghostface being one of the female characters. One could argue about what these films are saying when so many of ‘the final girls’ are the ones who don’t drink or have sex, and admittedly even some of the male characters who partake in alcohol, drugs and sex before marriage are prone to being dispatched in violently imaginative circumstances.
On the less mainstream end of the spectrum, such revenge movies as I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left had resorted to extreme sexual violence as a means to fuel their themes of empowerment, although more often than not the intentions of the filmmakers have frequently, and correctly, been brought into question, particularly with Grave, where many have felt, not wrongly either, that the intentions are more concerned with exploitation and degradation for shock value than any underlying female empowerment message. That these films were coming from male writers and directors only made things more problematic.
Flashforward to 1992, and some of the most interesting and well written female characters in genre cinema were to be found in action or science fiction, and usually written by James Cameron. Terminator 2 had just come out the year before Buffy with its superb performance by Linda Hamilton as a battle-hardened Sarah Connor. If Sarah in the first film was the more akin to the ‘final girl’ (although she was allowed to have sex and not be punished with it by being murdered) from any horror film, and the first Terminator was a slasher film in sci-fi clothing, T2 expanded her into the realm of a more ferocious action heroine, while five years earlier Cameron had a done a similarly brilliant job of writing Ellen Ripley for his Alien sequel Aliens. Both films made the characters more physically strong without sacrificing their femininity, particularly with Aliens and Ripley were motherhood and birth were themes not only hardwired into the character, but the very film itself.
With Buffy, Whedon had wanted to do something similar in terms of crafting a female action character in a genre setting who was very much feminine and not just a male action character gender flipped.
His writing style is abounded by one-liners and a keen sense of comedy that never sacrifice the drama, something that he managed to combine to a billion-dollar effect in 2012 when he wrote and directed The Avengers. Except, Whedon wasn’t on directing duties with the Buffy movie. That fell to Fran Rubel Kuzui, whose grasp on the material was somewhat different to how Whedon had intended.
Speaking in that Joss Whedon language isn’t easy. Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, David Greenwalt, Tim Minear, Drew Goddard, Steven S. De Knight and Mere Smith (amongst others) would do it incredibly well, having a brilliant grasp at being able to deliver scripts that manage to be hilariously witty with genuine dramatic stakes. In the hands of other directors, Kuzui, as well as Jean Pierre-Jeunet with Alien: Resurrection, have struggled to bring that sense of dramatic heft and wit to the screen with the fluidity that the material needs. The Buffy movie and Alien: Resurrection are two high profile examples of works that Joss delivered and was credited for where the issues with them are usually put down to his work being rewritten but the truth is, rewriting is not the issue, as much as it’s down to his tone not being adapted appropriately by other directors.
There are elements of Whedon’s script that were altered for the Buffy movie admittedly, such as the humour and the excising of some of the script’s more darker elements, but the truth is even the film’s mixture of horror, comedy and character development never come together in a way that feels uniquely Whedon-esque.
The empowerment message is there, as well as the keen eye on character development, and there are lines of dialogue that are genuinely funny, but the comedy sometimes borders on too comedic or even camp, while its use of clichés just feel like clichés as opposed to subversion or the gentle glee at being able to use them that would become more apparent when the character made her way to the small screen.
One of the first reveals of main antagonist Lothos (Rutger Hauer) has him floating in the air, his cape opened up, dressed in a manner similar to Bela Lugosi, and yet it never feels as if the movie is making the comparison and is simply just resorting to cliché, rather than commenting on it. Compare it to Buffy fifth season premiere ‘Buffy vs Dracula’ and it’s very apparent just what different wheelhouses the movie and television series were operating in.
As for Buffy herself, Kristy Swanson is charming and fun and has a demeanour and vocal delivery that is very similar to Sarah Michelle Gellar. Her journey from vacuous cheerleader to slayer of the undead is fun and one of the film’s more entertaining arcs. The film positions her and her friends as this school’s version of something akin to the Heathers, albeit without the intense psychosis, and the idea of watching Buffy for at least half a movie length as Cordelia Chase-type is enticing, and Swanson nails the journey and the audience’s sympathy really well. Of course, she’s not Sarah Michelle Geller whose appearance is very much at the forefront of this character now, but changes to the script aside, Swanson is better than the film’s reputation might have you believe, and there is fun to be hand in seeing her wear the white dress and leather jacket combo a good five years before Gellar did so (although the image of Sarah Michelle Gellar in ‘Prophecy Girl’ is, of course, one of the most iconic from the series).
It’s no secret that Whedon didn’t care much for Sutherland’s performance as Watcher Merrick, or for his constant improvisation on set; being the biggest star of the movie meant that Kuzui gave him free reign to do what he wanted, but where the later relationship between Buffy and Giles became one of the many beating hearts that made the series wonderful, Merrick comes across as a little creepy, not least showing up in the girl’s locker room which doesn’t play well in today’s climate (nor does the implied sexual assault joke during the credits).
There is one lovely moment in the middle of the film where he talks about his history as a Watcher and how he is resurrected again and again to train Slayers (although this is obviously a different take on the Water mythology than what would be developed in the series), and while it’s a moment that does feel somewhat grounded and poignant, not to mention nicely performed by Swanson and Sutherland, it’s really used as nothing more than a dramatic device to set up his death not long after.
We get customary visits to graveyards and even a training montage the likes of which we never get anymore backed by rock music on the soundtrack, and the cast are giving it their all. Luke Perry is very much Dylan McKay in his performance as Pike, but he’s actually charming throughout out most of it, while Paul Reubens brings a comedically threatening tone to his performance as Amilyn that is genuinely funny and strange and which might actually have worked in the series, although it’s undercut by a death scene that plays too much into the humour and which really should have been cut down. As for lead villain Lothos, Rutger Hauer kind of sleepwalks through it all as if he’d rather be somewhere else. He’s basically meant to The Master from season one meets Dracula and yet it’s never as fun or memorable as either of those characters.
Being a teen movie from the early 90’s also means we got our first look at some future big names which makes it fun to revisit and see the likes of Hilary Swank in a supporting role and Ben Affleck being a one-line extra (and a line that very much appears to have been dubbed).
The film ends with Buffy and Pike driving off on a motorcycle and into the realms of pop cultural trivia night questions such as ‘who was the first actress to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer?’.
The film is far from worst thing that Whedon is credited as writing (I’m looking at you Alien: Resurrection), but as a piece of Buffy lore, it simultaneously puts you in the mood to watch the series not just because it’s Buffy, but because you want to see this character and her story done better.
When Buffy the Vampire Slayer returned in 1997, the television series would continue not from the movie, but from Whedon’s script of it and make references to events that never made it to the screen (‘You burnt down the gym’). The development of Buffy as a television series began in 1996, by which point pop culture was dominated by The X-Files, a resurgence in horror thanks to the post-modernism of Kevin Williamson’s Scream, and the after effect of the one season wonder of My So-Called Life on teen dramas on television.
The late 90’s was a perfect era for Buffy to arrive into. The movie may not have been the hit, creatively or commercially, that it could have been, but television and the possibilities afforded by long form story telling and audiences more willing to commit to season-long (and beyond) story arcs, pop culturally literate works and a renewed interest in the horror genre meant that television and audiences were primed for something like Buffy to be greeted into our increasingly television saturated homes.
The iconic figure we now think of Buffy was was on her way.