Looking back at the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie

Before Sarah Michelle Gellar, there was Kristy Swanson as Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Sarah looks back at an unfairly forgotten 90s film…

It’s safe to say that not many people hold the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie in high regard. It’s too camp to be taken seriously, but not camp enough to be embraced ironically; it straddles that awkward horror/comedy line and, whenever it has to choose between going dark and going daft, it opts for daft. Watching it now does feel slightly weird.

To any diehard Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, Sarah Michelle Gellar is Buffy. She fully embodied that role, to the point where it’s difficult to watch her in anything else (especially horror movies) without seeing Buffy (and being disappointed when she’s inevitably a less interesting character). It’s even weirder to see Buffy when she’s being played by someone else.

And yet – whisper it – the movie really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks it is.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s watchable enough; the story is original and holds together reasonably well, the performances are serviceable, all things considered; and it’s (intentionally) funny. Anyone expecting a horror movie will be sorely disappointed, as there’s really very little about it that’s scary (save some of the 80s-tastic fashion) but if you’re in the mood for a lightweight comedy with a feel-good ending, and don’t mind a few stakings along the way, you’ll find a lot to enjoy about it. You just have to block out any thoughts of the TV series of the same name.

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The movie opens with our first introduction to a Slayer, or even the idea of a Slayer. “Since the dawn of man,” the intro runs, “the vampires have walked among us, killing, feeding. The only one with the strength or skill to stop their heinous evil is the Slayer.” A bewigged Kristy Swanson, from the non-specific “Dark Ages”, accepts her destiny in the form of a gnarled dagger – and we cut to the “Lite Ages”, where our girl Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is shaking her pom-poms as head cheerleader for Hemery High School.

Buffy is a stereotypical Valley Girl: she speaks in slang, she pops her gum, and she doesn’t care about anything except cheerleading, clothes, and boys. (She memorably quips that all she wants to do in life is “Graduate from high school, move to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die.”) When she’s approached by an old man in a trenchcoat, she recoils and practically runs away. And really, who could blame her? But that creepy old man is Merrick (Donald Sutherland), Buffy’s Watcher, and he’s turned up just in the nick of time – the vampires are about to attack, and Buffy hasn’t been trained to fight them.

The movie’s version of Slayer lore is a little muddied: the voiceover at the beginning says that when one Slayer dies, another is chosen – but it seems almost as though all the Slayers are the reincarnation of one another, since all Slayers bear the same birthmark (“the mark of the coven”) and apparently they all look like Kristy Swanson. Merrick’s lecture on his role in the whole vampire slaying thing reinforces this: “I train girls to be Slayers,” he tells Buffy. “I have done so for a hundred lives, and I shall continue to do so. I am born each time with the knowledge that my role is to prepare the Chosen one for her role.”

It doesn’t quite make sense – what happens in the period between one Watcher or Slayer being killed and the next one being old enough to take over? Do the vampires just run riot? – but maybe it doesn’t matter too much, because according to the movie lore, there’s also only one vampire worth really worrying about. His name is Lothos (Rutger Hauer), and it’s every Slayer’s duty to fight him. And usually, Lothos wins.

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But of course Buffy is different from all the Slayers who went before her, and though it might be her fate to fight Lothos and get killed, she doesn’t see any reason to accept that. She hasn’t been trained from birth to meet her destiny; she doesn’t unthinkingly accept the rules Merrick attempts to impose on her. She won’t be disciplined, she’s rude, and she follows her desires rather than the rules. Merrick does his best to teach her how to do what she’s supposed to, but she insists on doing things her way – which sometimes means dress-shopping, rather than honing her knife skills.

Even so, Buffy’s new night-time pursuits mean she has to neglect her boyfriend and her friends, and as she learns there’s more to life than perfect hair, she soon finds herself a social pariah. Luckily, though, she manages to pick up a new love interest along the way, in the form of loser mechanic Pike (90s heartthrob Luke Perry). Plus she’s, y’know, kind of awesome now she gets to use her cheerleading moves to kill monsters.

The path from high school mean girl to superhero is one her television counterpart will get a much better shot at walking, because she’ll have much longer to do it – but TV Buffy will also end up far more scarred and miserable as a result, while movie Buffy gets to save the world without forfeiting her cheery outlook on life.

The fact that Buffy’s attitude and typically girly interests are what separates her from the Slayers of yore is explicitly spelled out in the movie – but, interestingly, if you saw it on its original UK VHS release, you wouldn’t know that. The BBFC cut 11 seconds from that release, including a scene near the end of the movie where Buffy confronts Lothos with precisely her differentness. The two of them meet in a stairwell underneath the school, and she whips out a wooden cross, holding it in front of him to ward him off. “This is your defence?” he sneers. “Your puny faith?”

He sets the cross alight in her hand, to demonstrate its lack of power over him, but Buffy’s undeterred. In a callback to an earlier scene, she responds “No: my keen fashion sense,” and pulls out a can of hairspray, using the aerosol to direct the flames back into Lothos’s face. For some reason, the BBFC removed that scene, and in the cut version of the film the confrontation ends at the “puny faith” line, after which Buffy just runs away. The scene wasn’t restored until the film was reclassified in 2002; the DVD version contains the scene in full.

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The DVD and later VHS release also feature new box art, too, which is kind of a shame, because there’s another interesting piece of trivia relating to that original VHS release. Seth Green, who went on to play a major role in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV show, had a scene in the Buffy movie, but it was mostly cut from the released film (you can just about see the back of his head at one point, but that’s it). Somehow, though, a still from his scene ended up getting used on the back of the VHS box, showing something that never actually happened in the film.

Cuts aside, though, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie never really lived up to its creator’s vision. Joss Whedon has talked a lot about how he came up with the idea of the Slayer: she’s based on every dumb blonde in every slasher movie ever made, only this time she gets to have her revenge. Instead of being a victim, she’s a heroine, a strong woman who defies the stereotypes; yes, she likes clothes and flirting, but that doesn’t mean she can’t kick ass when required. But Whedon has also talked about how the movie version of Buffy didn’t quite capture the character he wanted to create. In a 2001 interview with Dark Horse Comics, he said “I felt like – well, that’s not quite her. It’s a start, but it’s not quite the girl.”

Perhaps part of the reason the Buffy movie is so disliked among fans of the TV show is because Whedon has been so open about his problems with it – it’s easy to feel angry on his behalf, or to wish the movie had come out the way he wanted it. Although he wrote the film, it was directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, who clearly had very different ideas about what the film should be. Many of the script’s darker elements were removed – the finale should be more dramatic, ending with Buffy burning down the school’s gym to kill all the vampires locked inside, which never happens in the film despite being regularly referenced in the TV series.

Whedon has said the film should be regarded as a stand-alone entity; it’s not in continuity with the series at all, despite the flashback in season two’s Becoming, Part One, which shows a flashback to Buffy meeting Merrick. He’s not the same Merrick as in the movie, though, because Donald Sutherland was the other major problem Whedon had with the movie.

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In an interview with The AV Club, Whedon even said that Sutherland was the reason he had to give up on the production: “I was there almost all the way through shooting. I pretty much eventually threw up my hands because I could not be around Donald Sutherland any longer.” According to Whedon, Sutherland had a bad attitude, and was incredibly rude to everyone around him. He also apparently significantly rewrote his lines, changing the meaning of various scenes and causing problems for everyone else.

But it’s impossible to know what the original Buffy movie would’ve been like without Sutherland, and with a director who shared Whedon’s vision; all we’ve got is the movie that exists. And while Whedon may see a movie that failed to live up to the movie he wanted to make, what we get is a pretty decent little horror comedy, filled with moments of brilliant absurdity.

It doesn’t really make sense that Paul Reubens’s character takes several hours to die after being staked, but it’s kind of funny. The gravely delivered “and the rest is silence” line doesn’t really make any sense, either, no matter how often or portentously the actors deliver it, but who really cares? Yeah, maybe Rutger Hauer is hamming it up to preposterous levels, but he’s fun to watch, and Kristy Swanson is cute and funny and kickass, and it’s fun to spot all the actors who will eventually go on to become megastars (Hilary Swank and Ben Affleck both have minor roles).

I think I’m starting to sound defensive here, and I might as well confess that I’ve always kind of had a soft spot for the original Buffy movie. I bought my first VHS copy (yup, the censored one) at a car boot sale for £2.50, despite the fact I was under 15 and shouldn’t have been allowed to see it, and I fell in love. I’d eventually fall in love with Buffy on TV, too, but the Buffy movie was my first experience of the vampire Slayer, and I’ll always kind of love Kristy Swanson’s version of her.

I’ve watched the film many, many times over the years (I own three copies of it) and I honestly believe it still stands up. It’s silly, but its flaws are endearing rather than aggravating. You can’t be precious about this film, and there’s nothing particularly clever about it, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its detractors would have you believe.

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