in Shocktober

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Note: I was supposed to review Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark today, but in between the time I volunteered to review it and last night when I actually sat down to watch it, it disappeared from streaming. Whoops! John says I’ve seen it before anyway. I guess it’s lucky we didn’t announce the schedule in advance, but since John mentioned Bigelow in his intro post, I wanted to let you know up front we won’t actually be looking at any of her movies this year.

Ten years before the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, in 1982, Frank Zappa gave a name to a certain type of affluent, young white women in California’s San Fernando Valley: The Valley Girl. To Zappa’s chagrin, his song helped popularize the stereotype and Valleyspeak, spreading the culture throughout the country. It helped create a new market for stories about ditzy, privileged girls and set us off on a long, dark road that somehow includes in a Nicolas Cage movie and I guess ends with Modern Family? Another man, a worse, hateful piece of shit named Joss Whedon, was apparently inspired by this trend but left wondering one thing: could he fit these girls into his nerdy fantasies? And thus one of the great media franchises of the late twentieth century was born.

That said, it was Fran Rubel Kuzui who first brought Buffy to life. She was the one of found Whedon’s script, expanded on it, and got the gig with Fox to direct it. She, like Whedon, had mostly made it in the industry as a script doctor but had managed to find some success with her directorial debut, Tokyo Pop, a movie about a white American girl who decides to chase success as a musician in Japan. She worked with the studio to retool the film away from Whedon’s esoteric jokes and dark tone and into something they thought was more commercially viable. Of course, Whedon strongly disagreed, and even though he was initially brought on as an advisor, those changes, plus an inexplicable, genuine hatred for Donald Sutherland, caused him to walk away entirely.

What we were left with is the story of a cheerleader, Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson) who lives in Los Angeles and hangs out with a group of real mean girls (including Hilary Swank). Buffy is preparing for the big dance when she starts getting stalked by a creepy old man (Donald Sutherland), who finally corners her and convince her that it’s her destiny to kill vampires. At the same time, a couple of doofs called Pike (Luke Perry) and Benny (David Arquette) have their own run-in with vampires, which results in Pike escaping and Benny being turned. All these vampire problems go back to Lothos (Rutger Hauer), a longtime adversary of vampire slayers, and his right hand man Amilyn (Paul Reubens), who’s… funny?

As I’ve come to expect from Buffy, she fights vampires with lots of flips, kicks, and cartwheels, which is cool. The only weapon she needs a wooden stakes (and in one case, hairspray). One thing I did not expect was how eighties this movie would feel. I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised, 1992 is still pretty early in the decade (George H.W. Bush was still president), but I was surprised how easily I could imagine this cast and the one from The Lost Boys getting along. One thing I cannot imagine, try as I might, is how much I would have liked this movie if I hadn’t already seen the TV show and lived through decades of Whedon insisting I’d be better off pretending this film didn’t exist.

Five years after Buffy‘s disappointing critical and box office performance, Whedon breathed a second life into his story by creating a TV series that is a pseudo-sequel to his original screenplay (and decidedly not the film). This reboot made a lot of changes, some that make the story better and others that just make more sense for a series rather than a 90-minute movie. Most notably, she leaves Los Angeles for Sunnydale, a fictional town where the writers can do whatever they want and that immediately makes it easier to accept that she’s not in our reality anymore. Buffy gets a new mentor, Giles (Anthony Head), who doesn’t immediately die and instead sticks around to teach Buffy and grow in his own way. Pike is gone, since it would be boring if Buffy was just in a stable relationship, and instead she goes through a series of increasingly unstable boyfriends. Buffy’s mean girl friends are replaced with a duo of lovable losers who are united in their devotion to her and her cause. It’s all good stuff.

But a lot of the same DNA is still there. The mythology about The Slayer and The Watchers is greatly expanded on throughout the series, but the starting point is essentially the same. You’ve gotta admit, the idea of an infinitely reincarnating super hero who takes on a legion of immortal demons while under the guidance of a secret order is a pretty appealing premise, even if it’s super nerdy. Also the big bad of season one, called simply “The Master,” clearly is a improved second draft of Lothos who is actually creepy and powerful and not just weird comic relief, even if Master ends up being one of the weakest villains in the run of the series. And the heart of both movies – the sympathy you have to feel for an innocent girl who is forced into never ending conflict that will certainly one day claim her life – remains strong in both versions.

So ultimately I don’t know what to do with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On one hand, I kind of wish I had seen it before the series so I could appreciate it more for what it is, as opposed to all the things I love about the show that it’s not. On the other hand, if I had seen this first, I might not have liked it enough to actually watch the show. After all, I only really got interested in the series when a saw a late season episode randomly at my grandparents’ apartment and was delighted to find out the show had axe fights with demons and powerful Jewish lesbian magic – elements that are missing from both this movie and the first several seasons of the show. Which is maybe the darkest conclusion of them all: not only can you not judge a book by its cover, you can’t even judge it by its first few chapters! Ain’t that some bullshit?