Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is a “typical” L. A. high school girl. She spends her time exclusively with other girls like her, and their interests are limited to fashion, boys, and cheerleading. All of this is going to change when a mysterious man shows up and tells Buffy that she is the Chosen One and has to protect the city against an onslaught from vampires.
2017 not only marks the much-talked about 20th anniversary of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (see blog), it also marks the much-less-talked-about 25th anniversary of the original film by the same name.
Everyone knows the tale: how writer Joss Whedon felt so frustrated about the way his vision was continuously changed and watered down that he finally left the set never to return. Not that this is a particularly unusual experience for a writer in Hollywood. But through the success and the quality of the TV show (over which Whedon had a much greater creative control) the narrative became clear: the series is great – the film is awful, a project botched and butchered by the studio, etc.
Apart from that, the film has mostly been a source for trivia discussions. For example, if certain actors who would later star on the show might or might not be seen as extras in the film, including Seth Green. Add to that the uncredited appearances listed on imdb (including Slash, Alexis Arquette, and a young Ben Affleck), plus small and medium-sized roles for Natasha Gregson Wagner (Vampires: Los Muertos) and David Arquette, and the first feature film role in Hilary Swank’s career, and you already have half a pub quiz at your disposal.
I only saw the film once. Early on during the run of the show, some TV station decided to schedule the film. I remember not liking it very much, as it felt “off”. Admittedly, I was only half-paying attention at the time, and the film being dubbed into German didn’t help either. There wasn’t a lot of the film that stuck in my memory, but if you had asked me last month what I thought of the film, based on my general impression back then I would probably have described it as “mediocre” and “barely a 5-out-of-10”-film.
So when I popped in the DVD the other week to watch the film in English for the first time, I was surprised to find that the film is – for the most part – more solid than I expected.
There are a handful of glimpses of Whedon’s TV-series, and even many lines of dialogue that I would be tempted to attribute to him. However, you can feel the 5-year-gap between the film and the show. The film feels a lot like Clueless (1995), in that it comes at the end of an era, the 1980s teen dramas of the John Hughes school. While the satirical Clueless marked the end of the Hughes era, Buffy could be argued to be a film which signalled that this end is near. This comedy rails against 1980s tropes and gender roles. And it is this where the film is at its strongest and where – I suspect – we can see Whedon’s hand most clearly.
When the show itself premiered in 1997, times had moved on. Clueless had been released two years earlier, and the 1980s were just a distant memory. The first seasons of Buffy still draw on that high school vibe, but it was a much more modern vibe. And the show was not looking back, but was instead breaking new grounds, foreshadowing the TV-era which we are in today.
Now, one reason why this film turned out to be better than I had expected is simple: the parts of the film that I did remember were the flawed parts, while most of the parts I did not remember were the solid ones.
The film starts out in a very similar fashion to Clueless, presenting us four teenage girls who are caricatures of their 1980s counterparts. Some scenes soon introduce us to the darker sides of this part of L. A., something most people choose to ignore despite rising numbers of dead and missing persons. When Donald Sutherland’s character Merrick first comes into Buffy’s life, the film starts to settle into its action-horror-comedy mode. And there is a parallel plot-line involving a loner guy by the name of Pike (played by Luke Perry in a good performance). This plot-line has various functions: provide a character different from those in Buffy’s immediate circle; show how “ordinary” people become aware of the supernatural events; provide Buffy with a potential romantic interest and allow the damsel-in-distress trope to be gender-reversed.
The dialogue throughout the first and especially the second act is quite funny and fitting for the film. Donald Sutherland’s approach to his role seems weird at times, and he is not always good at delivering some of the deadpan-funny lines. Likewise, Swanson – while doing a good job for most of the film – is struggling with the delivery of her lines at times, whenever perfect timing or emphasis would be of the essence. But the chemistry between Sutherland and Swanson is mostly working, and is at times even very good, which in turn helps to save that central element of the story and the two characters involved.
Buffy’s entourage of vacuous high school girls are also portrayed very well. Each of these characters is written differently. While Paris Vaughan’s character may be the most typical high school girl for a Clueless-style environment, and while I enjoyed Michele Abrams’s “doofus” character the most, it is probably Hilary Swank who is giving the best performance here.
There are other supporting performances that I find especially enjoyable, including Stephen Root’s principal and Mark DeCarlo’s portrayal of a hapless teacher of the non-athletic variety who seems to have been forced to temporarily fill the position of Basketball coach.
So, line-delivery aside, almost everything in the first and second act is enjoyable. The sequences which show Buffy in Slayer-training are really nice, and they seem well choreographed. And the difficult relationship between her and Merrick is portrayed rather nicely.
The one element that I dislike the most in the first and second act are the extended flashbacks in which Buffy has visions or keeps dreaming of former slayers’ lives. These are somewhat necessary, as they help to convince Buffy that Merrick is telling the truth and is not some nutcase. But apart from that they are utterly pointless and their really cheap look brings down the visual quality of the film as a whole.
Talking of the visuals: the vampire make-up is rather cheap, and while it is effective in some cases, in others it looks rather dumb, especially the floppy dog-ears put on some of the characters. Then there is the rather cost-effective but questionable decision not to “dust” the vampires or have them otherwise disintegrate once they are slain. These vampires merely fall to the ground, often conveniently outside of the camera’s frame.
The vampires in this film are generally problematic. Unless they are individuals which we have met earlier before they were turned, these vampires are just uninteresting slayer-fodder without any personality. The only exceptions are Lothos, the head vampire (played by Rutger Hauer), and his no.1 henchman Amilyn (played by Paul Reubens). In spite of being 1200 years old, Amilyn is a bit of a punk vampire in the Lost Boys tradition, and with one notable exception there is nothing particularly good or particularly bad about Reubens’s performance. Hauer’s villain is too laid-back without being able to back this up with any form of hidden menace. It seems at times like Hauer is phoning it in, but the problem probably lies much more in the directing. As with some of Sutherland’s choices, director Fran Rubel Kuzui either left these actors hanging by not giving them clear guidance, or she was simply unable to stand up to them when they were making the wrong choices.
In my opinion, it is the third act where this film drops the ball. The film suffers from the occasional plot hole (many films do), but in the transition from the second to the third act there seems to be an error in the story continuity – possibly an editing error. This relates to the question when exactly Lothos learns of the new Slayer’s identity. Now, this problem could be explained away somehow, but even then it would still feel very clunky. This whole problem is also connected to a character death that represents a halftwist-turned-retardation-element that I already didn’t understand the first time I watched this film.
The third act leads to a final showdown which is disappointing in many ways. Hauer is inconsistent in his portrayal of Lothos. In addition, there are a lot of things about Lothos that remain entirely unclear: the exact nature of his interest in Buffy; his powers and his limitations; his overall plan and motivation; etc. Buffy seems to have an epiphany at one point during the confrontation, related to something Merrick had told her. But I’ll be damned If I know what that was all about, no matter how often I watch this film. There is also a certain strategic move Buffy makes during that confrontation that makes no sense as she is secretly prepared for a move she cannot know Lothos will make nor knows Lothos is capable of (because no-one ever told her) – possibly another editing oversight.
It is not just the fight between Buffy and Lothos that is disappointing. Throughout the film, most confrontations Buffy has with vampires are somewhat lacklustre if you compare them to the nice choreography displayed during the earlier training sequences. As for the rest of the characters, the general mêlée between the pupils and the vampires at the school dance is entertaining, but it is not shot in a really exciting manner and it is often not clear what exactly is going on.
The scene that embodies the shortcomings of the third act is a vampire death scene that is stupid beyond belief. The actor in question very clearly intended it as a joke to amuse his co-stars. But then someone in the editing booth inexplicably decided it was fitting to include this shot in the film. A decision that ruins the film’s tone (which had just been keeping the balance until that point) and also seems like an insult to everyone involved, especially to the audience.
I already mentioned the lacklustre fights and some of the questionable acting choices. In general, this film feels like the people responsible were not paying enough attention to detail. Really good comedy can only be achieved through attention to detail (something Whedon is known for), but it seems the producers of the Buffy film often worked more along the lines of “this is only a teen comedy”, believing that what they had was “good enough.”
Over large parts of the first and second act, this feels like a solid teen comedy of its time, which I could easily give a 7-out-of-10 rating. But the many shortcomings of the third act partially ruin this film, and so any rating above 6 out of 10 would be unjustified.
PS: The film has a continuous mid-credit scene, as well as a post-credit scene (which is more of an outtake/reprise, I guess).