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July 6, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #131 - Buffy The Vampire Slayer

I had a "last horror nerd to the party" moment lately, when I finally started watching season two of Joss Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series.  I'm not gonna lie - I had a mad crush on Sarah Michelle Gellar back when that show kicked in and I was a 16 year old The Mike. I'm pretty sure I set a bunch of the backgrounds in the computer lab at my high school to pictures of her, but that's creepy and beside the point.  She was dreamy, yo.  And yet, I avoided the show completely (until I randomly watched Season 1 a couple of years ago and was kind of unimpressed), something that I can probably attribute to two factors. First, I was a teenage boy who thought he would be less awesome if he watched something that looked "girly".  Second, I had already loved the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie when I was 11.
You will note that I referred to only one of the two Buffy The Vampire Slayers as "Joss Whedon's" above.  If you're unaware of the man and or the brand name - It's safe to call Buffy a brand, right? - you should know that I'm not implying that the dude who went on to create Firefly and Serenity and to direct The Avengers didn't have a hand in the cinematic adventure that started Buffy on her path to television.  But Whedon seems to have worked hard to distance himself from the film, which he wrote with series executive producer Fran Rubel Kuzui directing, due to extensive studio interference in the script and some troubles with the actors on screen.  As someone who had seen the movie first - I still vividly remember the theater experience - I didn't really care about this stuff when I first read about it, especially after I watched the ho-hum first season of the show.
After powerhousing through the vastly improved season two (and now about half of season three) in recent weeks, I've certainly changed my position on television's Buffy.  I still struggle with some of the characters and it seems like there are more episodes where Buffy slays non-vampires than vampires, but it's got the same balance between goofy fun and serious drama (that refuses to be affected by an outlandish premise) that I've come to expect from the other things I've seen from Whedon. Sometimes I think that the way to tell if a TV show is great is to see whether or not you will continue to be addicted to the show when you wish the writers would change the characters' decisions or relationships.  For example, when you have to deal with Casey and Dana never working out on Sports Night or when Veronica Mars continues to choose the stupidest boyfriends ever (and manages to get roofied approximately 27 times) - but you stick with them anyway.  The Buffy Show passes that test with flying colors, because there are so many moments - particularly so far in season three - where I find myself thinking "Oh Buffy! What you doin' girl?!" or "Man, Xander just needs to never open his mouth again!". I think these things, but I'm still desperate to see where the show goes next and am already ready to forgive the characters as soon as they do something to totally redeem themselves. 

Wait...I'm here to talk about the movie, aren't I?
The point I'm trying to make, I think, by shouting out my opinion on TV Buffy's universe, is that I can see why Whedon is disappointed with the movie version now.  The guy loves to take his ridiculousness seriously, and the producers/studio folks behind the film adaptation - armed with a surprisingly perfect cast and a concept that would lend itself to comedy - decided to take it in a different direction.  Even after I'd seen season one of BuffyTV, I had the studio guys' back on this one. 
Kristy Swanson (who had a strong run of starring roles in films of little success over the next few years) headlines the film, and her Buffy shares more with the women in movies like Valley Girl or Clueless than any vampire story ever told.  Her portrayal of Buffy preys on the stereotypes of a southern California teen whose eyes are primarily on boys, cheerleading, and shopping - things that are mentioned, but barely utilized in the television series - while still giving the actress a chance to show off plenty of slaying skills. Donald Sutherland - who feuded with Whedon on set, which is part of what led to the writer allegedly walking off the project - takes on the role of her "watcher", while Rutger Hauer apes Vincent Price as the lead vampire who threatens Buffy's high school existence.  With serious actors surrounding the bubbly beauty we do get to see some of the discord between the watcher and slayer that became a key element of the latter series, but Sutherland's improvisation and Hauer's hammy performance don't really look like they'd belong in the world Whedon wanted.
One can argue the different tones between the film and series all day. Whedonites will certainly back the show primarily. They might note that Anthony Stewart Head's Giles is a far more interesting character than Sutherland's Merrick, and that Giles is a character who maintains some great comedy value despite his depth.  I'd agree with them.  On the other hand, I'm more inclined to take a cheesy villain who still seems like a physical threat, such as Hauer's character here, than several of the one-note villains that appear in the series.  For example, season one is all about the return of "The Master" - a deep voiced, monotonous character who seems like an undead version of the loathable bully that actor Mark Metcalf played in Animal House.  At least Hauer's fun to watch, right?
A young Seth Green, on the left, is the only actor to play a main character on the show and appear in the film.
I've turned this into a debate pitting the merits of the film vs. those of the show again, which was only partially my intent when I started writing this post. There's no winning on either side, nor do I think there needs to be.  The creator wants us to forget the finished product that is this film and watch his show and read his comics, which is his right.  But the creator is only one part of the process, and I know - since I was part of it - there was an audience for a more comedic and less cynical version of his story at the time.
Plus it has Pee Wee Herman and the best death scene ever.
The film's dated styles and the existence of the series have not been kind to Buffy the movie. But even as I become slightly addicted to Whedon's intended Buffyverse, I still find a very soft spot in my heart for this comedic film that seems to exist somewhere between Teen Wolf and Encino Man.  If I was just getting to the movie now and had already seen the series, this post probably wouldn't exist. I kind of feel lucky that I got in to Buffy when I did - "on the ground floor", you might say - because I can now debate the merits of each version while still respecting both of them. If you aren't biased by the show and are looking for an accessible vamp-com, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is worth your time, no matter what Joss Whedon says.

(Sorry, Joss. Serenity still rules!)

1 comment:

Angie Tusa said...

I think I technically watched the film after I saw the series, though I had probably seen clips of if here and there before hand. Regardless, I was able to appreciate it for what it is and not let my love of the show change that.