Monday, May 31, 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

NOTE: If you happen to be new to Whedon's work and Buffy in particular, the movie, while chronologically first, is probably not the best place to start (for reasons I'll get into below). Probably better to begin with Buffy 1x01 - "Welcome to the Hellmouth," which will be reviewed in a few days.

That said, on with the review, after the jump.

"I'm the Chosen One, and I choose to be shopping."

- Buffy

When I first decided to embark on The Whedoning, it was obvious that I would be be spending a lot of time in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That, after all, was pretty much the point. Still, while I had watched the entire run of the television series, I didn't really know the Buffy story from the beginning. The early episodes of Buffy didn't exist in a vacuum, and if I was going to have proper context. that meant watching the 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie with Kristy Swanson. But it was only reluctantly that I included it.

Why? Mostly because Joss Whedon has basically disowned it. He's been fairly open about the fact that he felt director Fran Rebel Kuzui mishandled his script. To illustrate what I mean, here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on the television show, which has quotes from the book Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy:
The director, Fran Rubel Kuzui, saw it as a "pop culture comedy about what people think about vampires." Whedon disagreed: "I had written this scary film about an empowered woman, and they turned it into a broad comedy. It was crushing."
Which is why, when Buffy appeared on the WB in March of 1997, it was a completely different kind of thing. The executive producer credit given to Kuzui and her husband was nothing more than a rights issue, as they were both uninvolved with the television show. And on top of everything else, the very first episode tells us that Buffy burned down the Hemery High School gym, something that Joss wrote into the film's script but never happens in the film itself. So for this reason, the movie is sort of the black sheep of the Buffy franchise.

But you know what? I actually quite enjoyed it.

If you view it as nothing more than a precursor to the television show, then certainly it pales by comparison. While some of the dialogue is quite funny, it's not up to the usual Whedon standard and I agree with Joss that it's far broader than it should have been. Particularly in the first fifteen minutes, the 1990s highschool valley speak is laid on extremely thick and it gets grating, but thankfully it's not long before Buffy leaves that world (mostly) behind and the film moves into the far-more-involving world of Buffy's relationship with her watcher Merrick. Even then, though, the vampires being played so heavily for laughs detracts from their menace. The show was at times guilty of this, but the film takes it even farther.

But it would be unfair to criticize the film for not being the television show, wouldn't it? As a goofy comedy-horror (much lighter on drama and action than the television show it inspired), it hangs together quite well, hitting all the right notes from the pop-song training montage, to Buffy's realization that she no longer belongs in the world of the high-school social elite, to the vampire's predictable invasion of the High School Dance (a common Chekov's Gun in this sort of movie).

And that's probably the by-numbers approach that drove Whedon away from the movie. I imagine that his script was quite a bit more subversive than what made it to screen. His intention with Buffy was always to subvert genre tropes, primarily by taking the typical vampire victim and empowering her instead to kick ass. And while that goal certainly informs the premise of the movie, it's never sold particularly well because Buffy's journey isn't one form powerlessness to power: at the beginning of the movie we see Buffy as someone who wields considerable social power among her peers.

Ultimately, though, it's Buffy's gradual progression from sheer vapidity to nobility and bravery, by renouncing her former social status, that drives the movie. Kristy Swanson's Buffy starts out really loathsome but it's for that reason that I respect her more by the end of the film. She's never going to be my Buffy, but by no means is she a bad Buffy. Likewise, Donald Sutherland plays a likable Merrick. As a Watcher, he's softer than the prickly Giles who succeeds him in the show, but that's probably necessary for a two-hour film as opposed to an ongoing television series. To his credit, he immediately comes alive as a fully-realized character in a way it took Giles more time to do.

I keep seeming to fall back into comparison to the television show, and I suppose that's probably natural, but ideally, if it could be evaluated on its own terms, I think this movie would have a better reputation than it does. The cheese factor is certainly no more severe than, say, Back to the Future, and some of the performances are actually quite good. So overall, my impression of this movie is positive.

There's one more thing I feel I should mention. The portrayal of vampires is quite different here from the television series, with no "vampface" and no "dusting" (Vampires instead leave corpses behind when killed) and they even seem to be able to fly. Also, "Watcher" seems to mean something very different here, and Merrick claims to be the Watcher, a pseudo-immortal being who is repeatedly reincarnated (like the Slayer, but retaining his memories).

I know some fans of the television show who would likely bristle at these mythological differences, but for the this movie and the effect Kuzui is going for I think it works fairly well. That said, I approve of the changes that were later made, and I'm definitely looking forward to reviewing "proper" Buffy.

But before we get to that, we'll need to take a look at the unreleased, unaired pilot.

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