Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Director: Fran Rubel Kazui

Starring: Kristy Swanson. Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry

With the recent explosion in popularity of the superhero genre, much has been made of the fact that Iron Man, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, etc. are all male. Sure, there have been some attempts at comic book movies with females in the lead, but that’s where you get Halle Berry’s “Catwoman” and Jennifer Garner as “Elektra.” Those debacles are no doubt as much of a reason as any as to why there hasn’t been a “Wonder Woman” solo movie yet. (She’s set to appear as a secondary character in “Batman vs. Superman.”) Still, the genre, however slanted towards the Y chromosome it may be, is enjoying a level of success it could not have dreamed possible only a few years ago. What might be lost on some people is that Joss Whedon, director of Marvel’s “The Avengers” and the soon-to-be-released “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” was the man responsible for creating one of the greatest female superheroes of all-time.

Buffy (Kristy Swanson) would seem on the surface to be your typical, self-absorbed California high school rich girl. Her ambitions consist of things like graduating, moving to Europe, marrying actor Christian Slater and then, once all that’s accomplished, dying. Lofty goals, I must say. But, despite her lack of vision for her future advancement, Buffy’s destiny is already predetermined. She is the latest in a long line of young women gifted (or cursed, depending on one’s perspective) with the powers of a Vampire Slayer. What became of the Slayers who came before Buffy? Right, well, that’s the catch. A new Slayer only emerges after the previous one has died. Thus, like with Highlanders, “there can be only one.”

Until Merrick (Donald Sutherland) shows up to fill Buffy in on all of this, she remains oblivious to the evil descending upon Los Angeles. She’s still unconvinced until he describes with alarming detail the nightmares she’s been having lately. A visit to the cemetery to put to rest the fresh corpses which are rising from their graves lets Buffy know that this is, like, for real. The main threat she’ll have to contend with comes from Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his henchman, Amilyn, a.k.a. ‘Lefty’ (Paul Reubens). Lothos has a history with the Slayer lineage, having personally killed several of them. But Buffy has something those other girls didn’t have: Companions. In addition to Merrick, Buffy also finds a friend …and possibly something more… in Pike (Luke Perry), the boy she and the vapid members of her high school clique had dissed earlier.

Although a quick glance at the credits for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will show that this movie was directed by Fran Rubel Kazui, it is screenwriter Joss Whedon who is the true brains behind the operation. And still, the movie does not quite meet with Whedon’s original vision. Its theme of female empowerment gets more than a little distorted by the fact that the finished product is campy in the extreme. It’s impossible now to consider the merits of this movie without keeping the TV series in mind. I’ve seen many great movies which were turned into terrible TV shows, but I can only think of a handful of movies which were outdone in almost every way by their small screen successor. The two that come to mind most often are “M*A*S*H*” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The two series don’t have much in common, except that each was long-lived, each has a devoted fan following to this day, each tackled very serious topics… and, oh yeah… both of the original movies starred Donald Sutherland. I’ll get to him in just a moment.

The uneven cast in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a problem. Some people will tell you that Kristy Swanson was all wrong for the part of Buffy. Her only crime is that she’s not Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oddly enough, sometimes when Swanson would speak I found myself hearing her TV counterpart. Given time, Swanson might have become as comfortable in the role as Gellar later was. Otherwise, she’s just fine. It’s virtually everyone else that drags this thing down. The villains suck, and not in the vampire way. You really have to make an effort to keep Paul Reubens… best known to the world as Pee-Wee Herman… from being funny, but that’s what they did. Almost every line he has falls flat. His death scene, prolonged for comic effect, is a total yawner. Even worse is Rutger Hauer. Here is a guy who can make you hang on his every word, and give life to some of the greatest bad guys you’ll ever see, and all I get from Lothos is how terrible his mustache looks. That’s how ineffective he is.

Luke Perry is harmless enough as Buffy’s friend Pike, but I can only assume his inclusion is based solely on his popularity from “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The supporting cast is surprisingly full of familiar faces. There’s two-time Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank playing one of Buffy’s rich girl friends. Probably the dumbest of the bunch. Well acted, especially if the intent was for the character to get under my skin. There’s David Arquette being David Arquette. Don’t think I need to say more than that. Also look fast for Ben Affleck as a basketball player on the team playing against Buffy’s high school.

Much more complicated is Donald Sutherland’s contribution to the film. On-screen, as Merrick, Sutherland delivers his typical performance. Nothing standout but not horrific either, at least not until you really start to listen to his dialogue and realize that most of it doesn’t make much sense. This is because Sutherland took it upon himself to improvise and rewrite most of his lines to his own liking, and at the expense of Joss Whedon’s script. He was reportedly so hard to work with that Whedon still refers to Sutherland as a “dick.” Seeing as how Whedon’s grudges are not my grudges, I can’t grade him based on behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Sutherland and Swanson have good chemistry, so at least there’s that.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an incomplete work, however one that is a little bit better than I had remembered. When I saw this originally, I had disliked it to the point that it was the chief reason why I avoided the TV series until it was almost done with its first run. As it turns out, the movie is at least better than the abysmal seventh season of the TV show. It isn’t what its creator had in mind, but it does make me want to revisit the first six seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on DVD, and that’s as close to a seal of approval as I can muster.

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