Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Though it has been a request for a long time I have felt mostly ambivalent about reviewing the Buffy movie. I think a lot of contemporary critics delight in a good massacre and some, like Red Letter Media, have raised it to an art form. But I know that the Buffy movie holds a nostalgic place in people’s hearts and I don’t really delight in the death of anyone’s darlings. I never take as much joy in tearing a thing to pieces as I do elevate something I treasure.
Well almost never. I watched the Buffy movie for the first time 2 years ago. I am not a fan of camp and hold no nostalgia for it. This movie is the misfire that accidentally leads to one of my favorite pieces of entertainment ever. If you feel differently, close the video and come back in a couple of weeks. I’ll have the guides for Something Blue and Hero up around that time.
For the sake of completion and to honor the vote I put up, I present to you my review of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. Another issue this review poses is how to talk about the material. As someone who has watched the series many many times, it is impossible for me to look at the movie on its own merits. I started with Buffy the show first, fell in deep love, and went back to watch the movie much later. I can’t consider this material without pondering what it turned into. And so, that is the confusing muddled perspective from which this review has been written. What might’ve been? And what was. The movie opens with a self-serious VO and campy intro explaining poorly that the Slayer bears the birthmark of the coven and is the only one suited to fight vampires that walk among us.
She is trained by the Watcher and when she dies the next is chosen. We then hard cut to modern times at Hemry High School and Buffy herself. That afternoon as Buffy and her friends debate the merits of various theaters using the clunky invented teenage vernacular that weighed down the TV pilot a bit. “yadda yadda yadda locker room scene from Buffy pilot” She is given the stiff one eye from an odd-looking man while trying to descend in an elevator.
In the theater, we’re introduced to Pike and his friend Benny. Pike regales Buffy’s boyfriend with a stirring bit of dialogue. 6:30 “Luke Perry says nothing” And one of the basketball jocks is eaten by a vampire, played by Paul Reubens. Buffy’s parents are rich and aloof. And as she falls asleep that evening she experiences the dreams of the Slayer’s past lives. After an inexplicable and pointless run-in with Buffy and company, Pike and Benny are out drunkenly on the town. Pike passes out and Benny gets eaten by Paul Reuben.
The next day Merrick confronts Buffy and tells her the truth. “You want me to come to the graveyard with you does Elvis talk to you?” I think the most admirable thing about this movie is Kristy Swanson and how hard she is actually trying. Her’s is a performance from a much better movie. Merrick knows the content of Buffy’s dreams because, of course, they’re real and Buffy agrees to train with him. At the graveyard Buffy witness her first vampires rising and slays them both. Benny has gone full mushroom eared flying vampire.
That night as Buffy prepares for bed we get what is probably my favorite bit from this entire movie. As the camera pans around Buffy’s bedroom Lothos is revealed, already lying in Buffy’s bed as she cuddles against him and he touches his her face. It’s chilling, successfully executed, and completely out of place in this movie. The movie struggles mightily with tone and swings wildly throughout. Is it a cheesy campy comedy? Is it a horror movie? Is it a drama? I would classify Buffy the show, as a drama that is populated by smart witty characters.
Mostly they show isn’t funny because har har, comedic hijinx but because the character’s most successful defense mechanism against the horrors around them is gallows humor. If this is your last hour on earth, why not spend it smiling and having a laugh? But the core tone of the show is grounded well enough. The movie is at times stupid, sappy, funny, and in this lone scene, scary. After that we get a training montage of Buffy getting all Slayerized, including her first kill in an alley. And then Buffy and Merrick bond over their mutual cycle of reincarnation. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“I’m not going to croak…” Pike is attacked by Paul Reubens and a chase ensues ending with one of the visual icons I remember from the trailer. Buffy rescues him and brings him…home for some reason. And their bit of sexy close taking in the kitchen reminded me of a similar bit from something else… The next day Buffy’s boyfriend’s douchey friend grabs her backside and Buffy Slayers him into the ground because of sexism. When Buffy’s beau makes an attempt to be sheltery and protective she pushes him away.
Buffy skips Slayer practice to cheer at the basketball game that evening. In it, a vampire decides to duplicate scenes from Teen Wolf while completely ignoring the context from that movie, as well as the fact that he’s acting alongside Ben Affleck. The Wolf I mean vampire figures out who Buffy is and takes off to tell the master even though wait don’t Pee Wee Pire already know that? Why is this chase a thing? Oh, who cares. Anyway, at an abandoned area for parade floats Buffy and Pike call some vampires and conveniently get romantic.
Merrick shows up with Lothos and Lothos kills him. Sutherland phones in the death scene hard. “When the music stops, the rest is silence.” This is such a weird hammy death scene, and Donald Sutherland so famously pissed off Whedon during the filming of the movie for changing the lines, that I wondered if this whole bit of dialogue wasn’t pulled directly out of Sutherland’s butthole. Especially given how little, Kristy Swanson has to do in this scene.
In working on this review I thought it would be interesting to compare both the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Origin comic, which was supposedly much more faithful to the original script, as well as the various and sundry versions of the script I could find online. The movie very lightly covers the idea that Merrick and Buffy have BOTH been reincarnated, lifetime after lifetime, but then never really does anything with it. But in the original script, Lothos corners Merrick as Buffy is rushing to them. And Lothos recognizes Merrick as the Watcher he’s seen time and time again.
He indicates that he has in previous lifetimes turned Merrick and forced him to murder the Slayer, before serving Lothos as a vampire. Rather than face the same fate and put Buffy at risk, Merrick pulls a gun and kills himself in order to save Buffy. AFAR more dramatic and brave ending for the character. Instead, we get Donald Sutherland laying on his back hamming it up by completely misappropriating Hamlet’s last line. Ironically, the fact that Sutherland chose Hamlet, one of the most famous protagonists in history suggests that he didn’t realize he wasn’t the hero of this story. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy grieves. The next day the clan is preparing for the dance and sniping at a Buffy, more preoccupied with Slayering than being one of them. She has a falling out with Pike that doesn’t make a ton of sense. Buffy’s skeez of a boyfriend dumps her. Luke Perry shows up looking like liquid 90s cool. Vampires crash. Perry tosses Buffy his leather jacket, which one would think was overly cumbersome but works as a very on-the-nose symbol for masculine power.
This ham-handed image was not in the original script. Buffy kills Paul Reuben who takes way too Who takes way too long to Who takes way too long to. Who takes an ungodly and unfunny amount of time to die. Lothos comedically tries to seduce Buffy. It doesn’t work. You know stuff happen. And Buffy rides away with Pike. The movie’s profound badness makes no sense on paper. Donald Sutherland, Hilary Swank, Ben Affleck, Kristy Swanson, Paul Reubens, and Rutger Hauer? “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” speech with Buffy shit in the background.
The only level I find the film forgivable is acting. Kristy Swanson is trying her damndest. Paul Reuben’s and Rutger Hauer aren’t doing anything that would seem to contrast with the choices the director is making. But everything else is pedestrian and just off. The direction doesn’t seem to understand the script, and rather than developing an identity of its own instead borrows painfully from other better films. Namely, Heathers and Teen Wolf.
The movie was directed by Fran Rubel Kazui, who today has two directing credits to her name. Tokyo Pop and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s also listed as an executive producer on every single episode of Buffy and Angel, as her production company financed the film and own partial rights to the IP. But everyone who worked on both shows said their company never had any involvement. Thankfully. The opening 60 seconds are kind of emblematic of why the movie falls flat. Everything is played for humor or camp value. Nothing is taken seriously. And because of that, there is no contrast or stakes to what’s going on. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
It’s all screwball and yet the movie tries to have it both ways later on. Screwball might’ve been fine if any of the jokes are funny, but short of the occasional well-written quip, there are no funny jokes to speak of. The movie lacks any editing flow as well. Everything is so dissonant. The cuts feel weird and unnecessary, as though no one was sure how to move things from scene to scene. There is an early scene that begins with Buffy’s parents leaving for a vacation, and absentmindedly calling Buffy’s boyfriend by the wrong name. She pouts and the scene dissolves out.
That’s it…this entire clunker serves to tell us one single thing about Buffy’s home life, does little to forward the plot or to develop anything about her character, and since the scene doesn’t really have an ending because nothing is actually occurring in it, we just dissolve into the next one. The editing also sabotages much of the “comedy” -dr evil- as well, as in this scene when Pike and Benny meet Buffy and company face to face for the first time.
Savor the uninterrupted long pauses and cutaways from the things we should actually be looking at and ask yourself. why didn’t they just remove this? And then there’s the problem with Donald Sutherland. I’ve never seen a performance phone in quite as hard as this and he was apparently an entitled nightmare during the shoot. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Joss Whedon said, “I pretty much threw up my hands because I could not be around Donald Sutherland any longer. Included in the Bluray is a behind the scenes featurette, in which Donald Sutherland says one thing. “I was so embarrassed to tell everyone I was in a movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” There is evidence to suggest that Sutherland was supposed to be doing an English accent, but then shortly gives up on the idea because he can’t be bothered.
We know from the show that the Watcher’s council are all English. And in Sutherland’s first scene where he rescues Pike, you can hear him doing a bit of it. “This is not safe out here…” And Buffy later employs what would be an odd insult if Sutherland WEREN’T British. “Conehead insult. Such a waste. Many of the ideas for the show are here mostly unbaked or uninteresting. I’ve mentioned in my guide for the TV show that within the feminist model that Buffy presents, Xander is a necessary component. He is the male who doesn’t question, debate, or resent Buffy’s power and leadership but instead seeks to find his own role and identity.
Luke Perry’s Pike fills that role here, if blandly – lacking many of Xander’s strengths that make him an interesting character as well as the weaknesses that make part of the fandom revile him. Mercifully, a few of the movie’s ideas were thankfully left behind. For instance Buffy’s vampire menstrual cramp radar. In the movie, Donald Sutherland tells Buffy that her cramps are a sign that vampires are nearby. “You’re going to be able to use them to track the vampires.” – Great, my secret weapon is PMS. Needless to say, using Buffy’s uterus as a symbol in a symbol heavy story whose primary metaphor is accepting the responsibility of growing up and becoming an adult is a little creepy and weird.
Adulthood and physical maturity are not synonymous. One is earned through responsibility and choice, and the other is just a simple inevitability of time. And the inclusion of her uterine vampire radar feels like a misstep that accidentally tethers Buffy’s power and identity to her ability to make babies. Something Whedon has been criticized for more than once. And yes this one is in the script. As mentioned, it is totally impossible for me to provide an unbiased critique of this movie. Throughout I hear nothing but the missed opportunities and throwaway dialogue that turned into deep and meaningful themes on the show.
While fully acknowledging that even Whedon couldn’t have known the fruit these ideas would bear as they are thoughts that grew organically from thousands of hours of work, let’s look at two scenes from Buffy the show and movie. Throughout both stories, there is a question as to what it is that makes Buffy different and more successful than previous Slayers. Why has she lasted far longer than others? In the movie, this works as a sort of metaphor-light. “Merrick I’m not going to croak. I have something none of the other players did.” – “And what is that?” – “My keen fashion sense.”
The Asian Slayer’s blood is an aphrodisiac for he and Drusilla and he says he could’ve danced all night with the NY Slayer. There’s really no way for him to know if every Slayer has a death wish because he’s only met three of them. What these deaths are about for him are actually the little-death or orgasm. Consider his selection of words when he talks about Buffy’s death. Buffy’s rejection of Spike’s advances also works on two levels, suggesting first that she’ll never sleep with him and second that Spike will never be able to kill her. But the relevant detail that Spike points out is the only thing that has allowed Buffy to last as long as she has are her ties to the world. Mother, Scoobies, sister Dawn. In short, love.
Where other slayers were taken from all that and taught ONLY about duty and responsibility, Buffy has lived a life in balance. Duty, responsibility in tandem with hope, and connection. And through a philosophical lens that doesn’t confuse right with good. And right versus good is ultimate, what the finale is all about. Buffy is faced with the choice of killing her sister Dawn and saving the world or defending Dawn to her last breath.
Good versus right. Duty versus love. At the end, when Buffy has her epiphany, the question of how she lived as long as she has, is what makes her different is rendered irrelevant. The details of the death are far less important than how we spend the time we have. Love, duty, and sacrifice. Spike’s bravado from Fool For Love is painfully ironic here.
“The second…” montage Okay, so I got a little carried away there. It isn’t that I EXPECT the same degree of character development and complexity from the movie. It’s that I can’t turn off the part of me that has already heard all of these ideas before but seen them done FAR more successfully. That and well I just missed talking about the show. But maybe that is as good a place as any to end. With the thing, I am most grateful to the movie for.