Buffy the Vampire Slayer (film version)


Rating 3

Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui

Written by Joss Whedon

Starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, David Arquette, Hilary Swank and Natasha Gregson Wagner

“You threw a knife at my head.”
“I had to test you.”
“But… you threw a knife at my head!”

I’ll deal with some facts and figures first. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ was released into cinemas in America in July 1992 and grossed $16.5 million at the box office. I don’t have any idea what the production budget was. Supposedly, 20th Century Fox had hopes it would become the summer hit for teens that year. If that is the case, they must have been sorely disappointed.

26 reviews collected at Rotten Tomatoes result in a 31% rating, although some of these reviews post-date the subsequent TV show.

There has been much discussion over the years about what is wrong with the original film. Joss Whedon has more or less disowned it, claiming his script was butchered. He places most of the blame for its failure directly as the feet of Donald Sutherland, who he called, “A prick.”

The general consensus is that the film is an unholy mess, an abysmal turkey, something that is blatant for all to see, even without the benefit of the comparison to the critically acclaimed cult TV show that followed in 1997. It does have its fans; even amongst the ‘Buffy’ TV show fanbase. However, the majority of hardcore Joss Whedon followers tend, perhaps understandably, to be very hostile towards it.

I think this is a pity because, for all of its myriad of flaws, it is a much better film than its reputation would suggest, and the similarities with the subsequent TV show are striking.

“Buffy is amusing for a time but its destiny is to die in a disappointing, long-winded conclusion. The second half feels stretched out and muddled, as if screenwriter Joss Whedon drove a stake through his script. However, in his depiction of the vapid SoCal world, Whedon knows the territory.”
Desson Howe, Washington Post, 31 July 1992

This review extract is, I think, quite accurate in summing up the strengths and the problems with the film. For the first 40-minutes or so it really is rather good, especially when watched again with the knowledge of the subsequent TV show. There are some fairly major faults, admittedly. Playing it straight instead of going for a campy, kitsch approach would have worked much better. I thought this even back in the days when I watched the film before the advent of the television show.

Donald Sutherland’s performance seems to shift from one extreme to another, from an almost serious straight portrayal to one that piles on the ham. He can’t seem to decide if he wants his character Merrick to be a rather melancholy and tired figure or some kind of foppish cartoon creature. The film is at its best when he tones down the ham and concentrates on the increasingly tender relationship that develops between Buffy and Merrick.

Rutger Hauer is also guilty of an inexplicable performance as the Vampire King, Lothos. Presumably, this is what the film’s director Fran Rubel Kuzui (also one of its executive producers) wanted, but I think a real opportunity was lost here. Had Hauer been allowed to give a much darker performance it would have made for very interesting results.

The one scene when Hauer isn’t apparently auditioning for a role in the end-of-the-pier Christmas pantomime is also one of the film’s creepiest moments. It comes after Buffy’s first encounter with Merrick and her first vampire slaying. Merrick drives her home. She asks him, “They can’t come in, right? Unless you invite them. Is that true?” He tells her, “It’s true,” and she mumbles, “Good.”

Having gone inside the house and had her mom entirely blank the cuts and grazes all over her face and arms, she goes up to her room and gets into bed, blindly lying on top of Lothos as she does so and curling up with her cuddly toy to go to sleep.

I’ve always thought this is a very strange and unsettling scene. It’s an idea that Joss Whedon seemed to return to again in the TV show episodes ‘Passion’ and ‘Buffy vs Dracula’.

Kristy Swanson is fabulous as Buffy. I think of her as the true Buffy. She’s certainly a more obvious choice to portray Buffy as a vapid cheerleading valley girl. Sarah Michelle Gellar, for all the brilliance of her sustained performance in the role, was too quirky for that to be entirely believable, I’ve always thought. Buffy’s cheerleading friends, including Sarah Vaughan’s daughter, Paris, and future double Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, are great fun. The influence of this can be seen in ‘Clueless’ and on through films like ‘The Hot Chick’ and ‘Mean Girls’.

“Let me get this straight, I have to go to the graveyard with you ‘cause I’m chosen… and there’s vampires?”
“Does Elvis talk to you?”

I have a soft spot for Luke Perry and I like the character Pike. In some ways I think it was a pity he didn’t get a mention in the TV show. Having said that, there is a connection. In the film, Pike gives Buffy his leather jacket. This is repeated in the show in the episode ‘Teacher’s Pet’ when Angel gives Buffy his leather jacket.

The vampires are atrocious and ineffectual, another failing of the film when it gets bogged down in trying to be camp and kitsch. Only Paul Reubens (primarily for the line, “Kill him… a lot”) and David Arquette make any real headway in these roles.

In the end the film is derailed, as the Washington Post critic suggested, when the vampires attack during the school prom. These scenes are, for the most part, shockingly badly choreographed and directed. What we are left with is a film that contains much more to recommend it than might seem obvious, but one that ultimately falls flat despite some great moments and a lot of potential to have been much better than it is.

There is a lot of stuff in the film that turns up again in the TV show. The Buffy of the film can easily be identified again as the same character in the television show, even if her parents are portrayed very differently here.

Equally, some interesting stuff didn’t make the transition. When vampires are close by but not visible, Buffy can sense their presence because she gets menstrual cramps. “Oh, wonderful. My secret weapon is PMS,” as she puts it. I can understand why it was dropped, but I think it was an interesting idea and very much fits in with Joss Whedon’s intended message.

In the film Buffy is reincarnated as the Slayer each time she dies, although as a different person, and she retains memories of her previous self in the form of dreams. Merrick is the Watcher of each Slayer in turn and it is his perpetual role to find her each time. “I’ve searched the entire world for you, Buffy,” he tells her when they first meet.

“Okay, guys, how about the ozone layer?”
“Oh, yeah!”
“We gotta get rid of that. That’s right!”


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