We remember the half-forgotten movie that spawned Joss Whedon’s seminal TV show. Is it as bad as everyone says?
Infamously, Joss Whedon hates the movie based off his Buffy the Vampire Slayer script. After witnessing his work being heavily reworked and handled with a very different tone from what he envisaged, Whedon adapted the idea to TV format and the result was television history. But does the film deserve his wrath?
Well, first and foremost, you can see why Whedon feels the way he does as the loose adaptation of his script definitely shows in the film. Some of Whedon’s terrific dialogue is lost in certain actors’ delivery and moments that were clearly improvised stick out like sore thumbs (for instance, an incredibly protracted death scene). The characters aren’t fleshed out enough and each actor seems to be in their own film (Paul Reuben gives it his all as a goofy vampire henchman while Donald Sutherland sleepwalks through his scenes as Buffy’s mentor Merrick).
Still, Whedonites will enjoy the Buffyspeak (“What is your damage?” “You’re acting like the thing from another tax bracket”) and certain imagery and story beats that also crop up on the show. Likewise, it’s particularly interesting to compare the film’s presentation of Slayer mythology with the TV show’s. For instance, here the Slayer and her Watcher are reincarnated throughout history, their mission apparently being to stop Lothos (a hammy Rutger Hauer) rather than protecting the world as a whole. The movie’s vampires are also very different. Much goofier, they are pale with pointy ears and lack the ability to morph their features like on TV.
If approached in the right frame of mind, though, there is definitely much to enjoy in the film, with various scenes getting the laughs. Considering the massive shadow of Sarah Michelle Gellar hanging over her (well, to a modern viewer), Kristy Swanson actually acquits herself very well in the title role. She’s suitably Cordelia-esque as the early vapid Buffy but then gives her the familiar spunk and guts later on (I particularly like the bits where she steps in front of her boyfriend to protect him). Speaking of which, her romance with Luke Perry’s Pike is fairly sweet, if rather underwritten.
On a side note, Buffy is a veritable spotters’ guide of future famous people in teenage roles. Hilary Swank and David Arquette are obvious examples but Seth Green (who later appeared on the show, funnily enough) and Ben ‘Batman’ Affleck also make blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.
Overall, the big problem with the movie is also the reason it shouldn’t be judged too harshly – it’s a very different beast from the TV show it spawned. It doesn’t really try to be bold and groundbreaking, or to switch between being dramatic and comedic on a dime, like the show. It’s just a light-hearted horror comedy. If you can detach it from the pop culture juggernaut that shares its name and consider it on its own terms, 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is enjoyable and should be essential extracurricular material for any Buffy fan.