Lost in the Movies: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the film

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the film

Welcome to my viewing diary for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Eventually, I will cover the whole series; for now I am posting brief overviews of the film and the unaired pilot as prologues. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (theatrical debut on July 31, 1992/written by Joss Whedon; directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui): The story begins, briefly, in the middle ages when we might expect to find vampires and vampire slayers, passing rituals down through the generations to fight the undead. But then, with a sharp shift even in the font of the graphics, we are in a mall with a bunch of Valley girls, pop rock blaring on the soundtrack. What could these two worlds have to do with each other? Buffy the Vampire Slayer very consciously sells itself as a high-concept mash-up, albeit a light-hearted one. It's right there in the title of course (a vampire slayer named Buffy??!) which the show retained, but it's also highlighted in the posters, which mix the iconography of vampires - specifically the deadly wooden stake which hasn't changed much over the centuries - with the fashion of early nineties Southern California high schoolers. And the film makes the most of these juxtapositions, contrasting its gothic action with the bright day-glo colors popular a quarter-century ago on the West Coast (at least its southern, non-grungey precincts). The characters are also studies in contrast. Buffy (Kristy Swanson), the materially spoiled but emotionally neglected daughter of a couple yuppie socialites, discovers she has incredible martial talents and powerful instincts. An initially creepy but ultimately harmless older man named Merrick (Donald Sutherland) awakens her to these latent skills, letting her know that he and she are inheritors of an ancient tradition, in which Watchers train Slayers to battle vampires. Eventually, she must survive on her own, with only the intermittent, occasionally feckless help of Pike (Luke Perry), a slacker whose best friend received the bite of immortality.

My response:
The film is as goofy as the premise suggests, but also witty and charming. When I borrowed the DVD from a library (this is a hard film to rent or stream, though it's cheap to buy), the librarian said it was one of her favorites - but warned that it was also very different from the series (of which she was the bigger fan). The sense I got from this and other conversations - including when I explicitly asked about the difference between the film and the show on Twitter - is that the film's relationship to the series is an uneasy one; the movie's admirers are almost a little apologetic, careful to distinguish its campy humor from what they see as the brilliance of the series. Obviously, I'm coming at this from a different direction, never having watched the show (indeed, using the movie as a pretext to get into it) so I had no problem appreciating it for exactly what it was - and I found it a lot of fun. The movie's signature appeal is that it neither takes itself seriously nor writes itself off as a cynical joke. Buffy is initially an unsympathetic, shallow character, but Swanson is able to imbue her with the right mixture of innocence, strength, and emerging empathy. She also has the perfect foil in Sutherland, whose eccentricities are guileless enough to earn our affection, but self-aware enough to be, surprisingly, a bit poignant. I saw the film a few months before writing this, so all I retain are my overall impressions - and some questions. I'm curious to see how the series develops the characters, Buffy in particular; a movie character's arc is not necessarily keyed to what works for several seasons of TV. And I wonder how the show will flesh out the premise and develop it into something more complex. The film is very much a one-joke story, though it tells that joke well. My indirect impression of Buffy the show is that it purposefully takes its gimmick for granted: "Yeah, sure, this is a world where teenagers fight vampires; so what? Let's get on to the important stuff."

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