Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast: Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Rubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry, Michele Abrams, Hilary Swank, David Arquette, Stephen Root, Natasha Gregson Wagner
Plot: Once in every generation a Chosen One is born, a young woman with the power to stand against the tide of the greatest predator in the world, the vampire. Unfortunately, this generation’s slayer is a ditzy cheerleader named Buffy Summers. Buffy (Kristy Swanson) and her friends are hanging out at the mall one day when she’s startled by a creepy figure (Donald Sutherland). She tries to shrug it off, but begins having dreams of an earlier life where she battled a vampire named Lothos (Rutger Hauer). In the present day, Lothos sleeps, but his minion Amilyn (Paul Reubens) is ready to wake him up. A pair of burnouts, Pike (Luke Perry) and Benny (David Arquette) encounter the girls a few times before wandering off, drunk. Benny is taken by Amilyn, while Pike is saved by the strange man from the mall, Merrick. He approaches Buffy and asks her to accompany him to a graveyard so she can claim her “birthright.” She doesn’t believe his claim that she is the Chosen One, but when he begins describing her dreams to her, she agrees to accompany him. Two freshly dead people rise, transformed into vampires, and Buffy instinctively stakes them.
Pike, home in bed, is approached by Benny, who hovers outside his window and cannot enter without an invitation. Benny cries that he’s hungry, brandishing a new pair of fangs, and Pike refuses him entry. Unnerved by the strange things he’s seen, Pike plans to leave town. Meanwhile Buffy, after some persuasion, begins the training she should have undergone years ago, taking to the night to slay the vampires. She winds up saving Pike, whose effort to escape town is thwarted when he’s jumped by Amilyn. Amilyn escapes, but loses an arm in the process, and is scolded by Lothos for his failure.
At a basketball game, Buffy realizes one of her friends has been turned and pursues him through the streets of the city. Pike joins in the chase and the two, on motorcycles, hunt him to a storage yard for parade floats. Lothos and Merrick both intervene in the fight, and the vampire lord slays Buffy’s mentor. Buffy’s friends show no sympathy when she turns up depressed the next day, and she and Pike get in a fight in public over her unwillingness to continue the fight. Neither of them know Benny is nearby, hears the fight, and learns that Buffy is the Chosen One. With her name revealed, Amilyn and Lothos plan to destroy her.
Pike crashes the senior dance, dancing with and kissing Buffy just before Lothos’s vampires break through the windows and attack the hundreds of assembled teens. Pike presents Buffy with a bag of stakes he prepared, and she goes on a slaying spree. Benny and Pike fight in the dance, Benny offering to change his buddy into a vampire, but Pike refuses and slays him. Buffy encounters Amilyn in a stairwell, staking him in front of Lothos, who is unmoved by his minion’s death (or melodramatic death scene). Their battle spreads back to the gym, and Buffy stakes Lothos in full view of the school. Together, Buffy and Pike ride his motorcycle into the sunrise, leaving the town to wonder what the hell just happened.
Thoughts: Joss Whedon is, today, a god among geeks, creator of such cult favorites as Firefly and Dollhouse, director of the biggest superhero movie of all time in The Avengers, and pioneer of original online content with Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. (Not to mention is more recent film Cabin in the Woods, a great entry into the horror canon, my analysis of which is available exclusively in the eBook edition of Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.) His star began to rise in earnest in 1997, when his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show became a hit for the fledgling CW network. That show largely ignored the film that birthed the character, though. Released in 1992, Whedon was never happy with the way director Fran Rubel Kuzui treated his script, playing it as a much broader comedy than he intended. And in truth, anybody who watches more than a few minutes of the TV show will agree that the film pales in comparison. That said, though, looking back 20 years later, there is a bit of cheesy charm in this original version of the Slayer.
Whedon’s initial concept was to take the typical horror movie victim – the teenage girl – and turn her into the hero. It’s a great, simple idea, but the final film goes a bit too far in playing up the stereotypes. Buffy and her friends (including future Oscar winner Hilary Swank) are vapid to the point of obnoxiousness. That may well be the intent, but once they start jabbering about choosing “litter” as the theme for a socially-conscious school dance, you kinda want to see them all die. The only thing more irritating is the basketball coach shouting to his team to “actualize” as though it’s a defensive strategy. Pretty much all of the humor is too broad for the characters, in fact. The only really goofy moment that works is when you realize the vampires have, in fact, been invited to the dance and thus can enter. Of course they were invited. They’re seniors.
Much of the violence and action isn’t quite believable either. An early scene where Buffy chops up a hot dog Benny is using to taunt her is supposed to be an early indicator that she’s got power, but instead just seems like the director used poor editing to cover a joke that had no punch. A few minutes later, when Merrick throws a knife at her and Buffy catches it, it’s even worse. The image is so stilted I’m inclined to believe Swanson was actually filmed throwing the knife away and Kuzui played it in reverse.
For all its faults, there are some good moments in the film. Some of Buffy’s dreams are a bit silly, but others are played for straight horror. There’s a nice one, for example, where she’s going to bed and the viewer doesn’t quite realize she’s already asleep when she lies down, Lothos beside her. For a moment you think she’s just oblivious to her enemy (even though it’s already been made clear a vampire cannot enter a person’s home without an invitation), but when he gives her a teddy bear and she curls up on him it’s downright unnerving. You feel a little relief, moments later, when she wakes up. Placing one of the fight scenes in the parade float storage yard is another nice touch – the oversized figures and statuary make for a suitably eerie backdrop for a fight. It’s kind of sad this is the last thing Kuzui directed, she actually has an okay eye for horror that would have worked well in the darker-toned Buffy TV show (where she served as an executive producer). That less broad version of the character may not have been too bad in her hands.
Buffy would later become a great character in the hands of Sarah Michelle Gellar, but the embryonic form still has a bit of steel in her. Swanson’s Buffy is never quite as vapid as her friends, and begins to grow rather quickly. She isn’t the girl power icon she would later become, though. I still keep going back and forth on an element of the character that was disposed of entirely when she transitioned to television – the use of menstrual cramps as an early warning that vampires are nearby. Somebody out there help me – is it empowering to use a nuisance that is unique to women as a weapon in the fight against evil, or is it patronizing to base Buffy’s Spider-Sense surrogate on a natural process that is so often played as a negative stereotype? I feel somehow that the answer to that question would go a long way towards explaining if it’s okay to like this movie or not, but having a Y chromosome (as I do), I don’t think I’m actually qualified to answer it.
Paul Reubens is a really bizarre casting choice. At this point in his career he was already known primarily as Pee-Wee Herman, a role that he put away after an embarrassing public incident the year before. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Doing Buffy felt like an effort to rejuvenate his career, and although it didn’t really succeed, it wasn’t for lack of trying. His Amilyn works well as a sort of Renfield, the second banana to the main vampire, with just enough of an edge to feel like a credible threat. The only time he gets silly or plays up his traits as a physical comedian is during his extremely protracted death scene. (That scene, by the way, isn’t a bad joke, but it’s a joke that goes on entirely too long.) He, at least, is memorable, though. Rutger Hauer’s Lothos… not so much. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just dull compared to all of the other great vampire performances out there.
It’s an early 90s film, but it actually carries with it a lot of the tropes of the 80s teen sports movie: the character who doesn’t want to play the game, a training montage in which she unlocks her natural talent, and a Big Game at the end for all the glory. There’s even the requisite clueless authority figure (a very funny turn by Stephen Root) who both hassles Buffy for the change in her behavior and tries to be her pal, sharing far too much information with her than anybody is really comfortable with. There’s also a fun little game of “spot the future celebrity” worth playing. Hilary Swank has a sizable role, but you can also catch Ben Affleck as an opposing basketball player, Thomas Jane as a punk teenager, and Ricki Lake and Seth Green (who would go on to have a regular role on the Buffy TV show) as vampires.
For all the crap it gets, the movie isn’t really all that bad. It’s competently made, and none of the performances are horrible. The plot works, but the tone is off. This never would have made any credible “worst of all time” list, it would simply have been forgotten, one of hundreds of movies made every year that are completely off the cultural radar short months later. We remember it, though, if for no other reason than because it gave us one of the greatest horror heroines of all time.
Don’t forget, Lunatics and Laughter is the second Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!
And while the 20 films for the first phase of Lunatics and Laughter have been selected, I’m still taking suggestions for next year’s expanded eBook edition. I’m especially looking for good horror/comedies from before 1980, so if you’ve got any ideas, please share them in the comments section.