Jul 31 2012 12:00pm

Next Year, You Get Champagne: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Movie Turns 20

Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie

It’s been 20 whole years since the world first met a vampire slayer named Buffy. And whatever your first impression was — stop with the leggings already, what was that title about, why is she a cheerleader — it doesn’t matter so much one movie, two television shows, and one comic series later.

But what about the movie? That much-maligned unloved stepchild of an affair? Well, since it’s the 20th anniversary of the film, maybe it’s about time that we re-examine this odd piece.

There’s really no two bones about it: this movie is bad. Sort of fun, but bad. Still, that alone is not unforgivable with the remnants of Joss Whedon’s original script peeking out. Or maybe it’s the entertaining actors in bit parts laced like gold throughout the film. Or both. I could go with both.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie

There are all sorts of lenses that one can view this movie through and perhaps that’s part of what makes it so confusing. There’s the Failed Whedon Lens, the Early 90s Lens, the Would-Be Female Empowerment Lens, the Post-Hughes Teen Movie Lens, even the Luke Perry Lens.

And I’ll be honest with you — I’m no Luke Perry fan, but he sort of saves the movie. It probably has a lot to do with him being one of the few characters in the film who comes off as likeable as he was intended to be. He looks like Joss’ personal avatar in this, the one who paves the way for Xander and Wash, and you can’t help but root for the guy. It helps that he’s got a motorcycle, a decent character arc complete with accepting his new girlfriend’s badassery, and knows how to rock his James Dean prom getup.

It’s clear from scene one that one of the film’s biggest blunders is that most of the actors are unsure about how seriously they should be taking the whole project, their leading lady included. I want to like Kristy Swanson, I really do (and she does seem to realize the mantle that she missed out on in retrospect), but she’s just a bit too wink-wink to get me truly invested. She’s playing to the stereotypes rather than ignoring all the obvious cliches you can draw from a valley girl cheerleader. The result means that this Buffy isn’t quite the honest-to-goodness teenager that the movie requires, with all the weighty discovery that would entail. Carter Burwell’s (Velvet Goldmine, No Country For Old Men, In Bruges) soundtrack similarly falls flat, with an overabundance of synth and no real emotional stance on the material.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie

Donald Sutherland was one of the main reasons that Joss Whedon walked away from the set for good, by the creator’s own admission. It’s too bad because while Sutherland is perfectly competent in the role, he’s hardly more than that. Swapping him out for someone who had less disdain for the whole project would have been a smart move. (Were they really counting on him to sell the movie, I wonder?) On the other hand, Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer can chew scenery to their hearts’ content, and keep everyone coming back for more. Camp aside, Hauer’s villain Lothos, makes even less sense than the Master in Buffy’s initial season — it seems that it took Whedon a while to decide where he wanted to go with this particular brand of vampire, and the result is... all over the place, undoubtedly made worse once the project was out of his hands.

One of the better games to play while watching the film is to imagine these situations for Buffy’s TV incarnation, particularly where her training montages and vapid friends are concerned. Among them is Hilary Swank in her first film role (And who could have possibly guessed that that girl would be a karate kid two years later and an Oscar winner five years after that?) and the group is just as terrifying as anything that Cordelia’s cronies ever turned out. It’s interesting to consider that aspect of Buffy’s life before Sunnydale, the point when she could afford to be more selfish and sheltered. We only get glimpses of that initial revelation and the pain it caused in the show, and while the film is not official canon, it’s easy to re-imagine how it really went down for the Slayer.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie

Then there’s that John Hughes lens that I mentioned earlier. This film was released in the wake of Hughes’ famed “brat pack” films, and it shows all the way around. (It’s also post-Lost Boys, which gives the film far fewer excuses where the vampires and their pedigree are involved.) Buffy’s brand of uniqueness is reminiscent of a Hughes hero, from her quips to her fashion sense — admit it, you wanted those boots to go with your prom dress too. Some of it could have been deliberate, but it seems more likely that the film’s director and cast were simply working within a mold that was familiar and comfortable to them. That was how teen movies worked at that point in time. It’s just unfortunate that they kept all of Hughes’ tongue-in-cheek and none of his relevance.

The derision this film garners from Buffy fans is still sort of a shame, though. While it’s kind of them to be so outraged on Joss Whedon’s behalf, the film hardly warrants such anger because it isn’t trying hard enough to warrant much of anything. It’s almost like hearing a new Battlestar Galactica fan rage against the original 70s show (or vice versa): it’s fun to gripe, but ultimately the two are not related because they officially don’t occupy the same universe. Buffy the Vampire Slayer of 1992 just doesn’t quite deserve the pile on that it receives.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie

In fact, you could argue instead that it’s sort of wonderful to know this film was the start of so much more. That the mediocre can be pulled out of the trash, dusted off, and given the chance to shine. It’s no must-see, but as a piece of mythology, the Buffy movie is one giant step on a road to greatness. It got our girl in the ring, so to speak. So cheers to this bizarre piece of Slayer history — and a happy 20th birthday. Next year, you can drink.

Emily Asher-Perrin is pretty sure that 90s fashion contained all the worst elements of 80s fashion and then some. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

1. DHMCarver
I post as an apostate, I gather. I loathed the series, and thought it was tripe, but loved the film, which I thought was good, campy fun. (And no, I am not trolling, I am merely expressing personal preferences.)
Amy Palmer
2. wayfaringpanda
I really, really love the series, having watched it numerous times and fangirled for years over it. That said, some of my fondest memories as a kid is wheedling my sister into letting me watch the Buffy the Vampire Slayer with her and her friends. Maybe I was too young to get the camp, but for me it involved a self-centered teenage brat who discovers a destiny, becomes a badass martial artist who kills vampires, and saves the day and the boy. I adore this movie in all of its terrible glory.
john mullen
3. johntheirishmongol
As a camp movie, it might have some value if it hadn't been so badly cast. Pretty much everyone in it was lousy. Kristy simply wasn't believeable as a cheerleader, unlike Alicia Silverstone who was perfect in Clueless. Hated both Rubens and Hauer in the movie.
TW Grace
4. TWGrace
@DHMCarver -1

I too like the movie better than the series.
5. Gardner Dozois
I wasn't "outraged" over the movie on Whedon's behalf, mostly because I had no idea at the time who Josh Whedon was, and also because the movie didn't impress me enough to deserve outrage. It was an "ehh" experience. It didn't make much of an impression on me, I didn't like it much, and I'd forgotten most of it ten minutes after I'd watched it (even now, the only thing that really sticks in my mind is Donald Sutherland, although he did play it as if he was really bored by the role). Solidly mediocre, shading to bad. Forgettable.

In fact, the movie was one thing that inclined me against BUFFY the series, and kept me from bothering to watch it for the first year or so (caught up in retrospect).
Noneo Yourbusiness
6. Longtimefan
know it, own it, love it.

It is not good but it is funny and I was not expecting much from a Luke Perry movie. I know it is about Buffy but when it was being spun 20 years ago it was leaning heavy on Luke Perry and his 90210 fame.

Plus Paul Rubens is always a great comedian.

I do not worry much over the struggles with the writter and the work because at this time Whedon had some clout but no real power. Writers in Hollywood have minimal influence which is why most branch out to being producers and sometimes directors where they can wield more control over the work.

The movie is separate from the telvision show but shares a few flavors. It is like having chips and salsa vs a full nacho platter.

close but not the same.
David Thomson
7. ZetaStriker
The Buffy movie was the first bit of Whedon-dom I ever watched, and being a young child at the time I loved the camp. It was actually because my family rented the film at random before one of our RV trips that I tuned into episode one of the series years later, and from there he had me hook, line and sinker. Although I recognize the movie is bad, I have similar feelings for Buffy season 1, so I can forgive it its faults.
Rich Bennett
8. Neuralnet
I remember seeing this movie (which I thought was ok but not great).. then hearing about the TV show coming out and thinking... that will never work, it will be off air in 2 episodes - LOL
9. RobinM
I have no outrage on behalf of Joss Whedon for this movie. It's so bad that it made me want to ask for my $1.50 back. My cousin fell asleep during it and I didn't bother to try and wake her up. I almost completely blew off the tv show because of this movie. I do remember one line I liked out of the entire picture "Does Elvis talk to You?" it made me laugh because of snark not scene chewing.
10. Gardner Dozois
Ironically, for all but a few loyal fans, that the movie is remembered at all is because of the subsequent BUFFY television series. If the TV series had never been produced, the vast majority of people would long ago have forgotten that this movie ever existed, along with thousands of other not-very-good but not PLAN NINE-bad movies from the same period.
Marc Gioglio
11. Fuzzix
The movie is totally brilliant on two fronts. First, it is hilarious. Second, it is not the television show. All of the critique I am reading here boils down to comparisons to the television show instead of the movie in its own right. It was the first real horror/comedy I saw and it worked wonders. The casting is awesome, the comic lines are brilliant and non-stop. Donald Sutherland is not Giles, Luke Perrry is not Angel and Buffy is as much Cordelia as Buffy. Not everyone has to be all angsty brooding all the time.
12. McJulie
You know, BTVS the movie was never going to win any Oscars or anything -- and it's not flat-out brilliant like the series -- but if you have a fondness for vampire movies (and I do) you will end up seeing many movies that are far, far worse. As vampire comedies go, it's better than Vamp and Love at First Bite, without being as good as The Lost Boys or the original Fright Night. I'm okay with that.
S Tieh
13. infinitieh
I loved the film, so much so that I refuse to watch the television show. Instead of a fun, action-filled, campy take on teens and vampires, the series made it into some angst-ridden nonsense like almost every other teen show/afternoon special albeit with vampires. Blah.

Of course, my favorite old vampire movie is "Love at First Bite" with George Hamilton so I probably like camp more than angst.
16. formulas7002
What is wrong with you people? This movie is hysterical, being so bad makes it even more funny. This movie was never meant to be serious, and any attempt at heavy handed acting or directing would have killed it...NOW its a Cult Classic and still selling...Most movies do not even gain that status. Lighten up, watch it and accept it for what it is...a FUNNY Vampire movie :)
17. PieCatLady
Loved the series. Season 1, I rushed home from work so as not to miss the wolf-howling intro montage. Wouldn't watch "Angel" (at least at first) 'cause I was furious at the character for spinning off and leaving Buffy. So eager to watch the movie, finally. Then bitterly disappointed, missing all the gems Emily A-P notes. (Yes, Emily, both.) Re-viewed, I see the good aspects, and @formulas7002 is right. On its own merits, a much better vampire movie than some. How easily it could have been stake-to-the-heart gaspingly good.

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