July 31, 1992
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is an unusual cult movie because it’s largely remembered for the same reason it’s dismissed: it’s overshadowed by its long running TV show followup. In that sense it’s Gen-X’s answer to M*A*S*H.
Had that not happened, maybe there would be more passion for this likable if not entirely successful execution of a cute horror-comedy idea. The director is Fran Rubel Kuzui (TOKYO POP), the screenwriter is then-25-year-old Roseanne staff writer Joss Whedon, and its gimmick is almost there in the title: what if the popular, mall-loving, air-headed Valley Girl cheerleader was not just fodder in a vampire movie, but the chosen one destined to protect humanity? I can’t actually think of many Valley Girl cheerleaders in horror – it seems more like a twist on fake horror movies within other movies than on the actual genre – but it works as a tongue-in-cheek way to cross a high school comedy with horror, and at least superficially point to the serious place where their themes can overlap.
Buffy (Kristy Swanson, MANNEQUIN: ON THE MOVE) is a superficial L.A. high school senior with a dumb jock boyfriend named Jeffrey (Randall Batinkoff, THE PLAYER) and mean-girl friends like Jennifer (Michele Abrams, TROLL 2), Nicki (Paris Vaughan, PRETTY SMART) and Kimberly (Hilary Swank in her first movie). They’re the planning committee for an upcoming school dance with the socially conscious theme “the environment” and the slogan “Hug the World.” They like going to the mall, and to the movies. Buffy cares about THX and Dolby, and won’t go to the Galleria because they play foreign trailers (which at this time might’ve included DELICATESSEN and ZENTROPA).
They also talk during movies, much to the annoyance of overcoat-and-skull-t-shirt-wearing bad boy stoner kids Pike (Luke Perry a few seasons into Beverly Hills, 90210) and Benny (David Arquette, WHERE THE DAY TAKES YOU). I think maybe these boys are supposed to be older – if not, I don’t think they go to the same school. But they all see each other at Café Blasé, which is basically a bar but without alcohol because this is a teen movie. (Pike always carries a flask anyway.)
One day when Buffy is alone in the gym practicing gymnastics she’s approached by a mysterious man named Merrick (Donald Sutherland not long after BACKDRAFT). She seems to assume he’s some pervert, but doesn’t tell him off quite assertively enough for that scenario. Since he not only knows her name but the content of her dreams (since they’re about the lives of previous Slayers he trained) she agrees to go with him to a cemetery, where they watch a guy rise out of his grave as a vampire, and she proves to be a natural at staking him.
Okay, yep, she’ll be the Slayer I guess. There are some good training montages – one has I believe a really well executed Texas switch so a double does a bunch of handsprings and then becomes the real Swanson doing a flying kick in the same shot. Plus a well timed gag that the bag swings back and hits her.
(Second unit director/stunt coordinator: Terry J. Leonard [COBRA, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO]. Martial arts trainers: Pat E. Johnson [choreographer/referee from the KARATE KID movies] and James Lew [BEST OF THE BEST].)
Sutherland (who Whedon hated for rewriting all his dialogue) has the seriousness and gravitas to ground the movie, while most of the other performances are pretty broad. But the story does shift from laughing at Buffy to treating her emotions seriously as she struggles to balance the fun teenager things she wants to do with her new supernatural responsibilities. It also treats her romance with Pike very sincerely, which I guess is what you gotta do when having a 90210 dreamboat in your cast got you your greenlight.
Buffy’s parents (Candy Clark [AMERICAN GRAFFITI] and James Paradise [SLEEPAWAY CAMP]) are inattentive party-goers who don’t notice that she’s going out to patrol at night. She starts missing cheerleading and dance practice and is also a little torn between her in-crowd school friends and her new possible love interest Pike, who finds out about vampires after Benny gets bit and appears at his apartment window with fangs, pointy ears and levitation powers.
When Buffy tries to have a serious talk with her friends about what’s going on in her life they don’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. The costume department signals her shift by dressing her in a plaid shirt, cut off jeans and Doc Marten-like boots – there’s that Lollapalooza influence for you. The soundtrack features alternative-radio-friendly acts Matthew Sweet, Toad the Wet Sprocket, diVINYLS, The Cult and Mary’s Danish. (But also Ozzy Osbourne, Pantera with Rob Halford, Susanna Hoffs covering Oingo Boingo, and the Canadian rappers Dream Warriors. And an opening C+C Music Factory jam during a cheerleader routine.)
Pike contrasts with Buffy and her rich kid friends because he works as a mechanic, drives a shitty van, plays (or at least carries around) a guitar (acoustic – Buffy uses a piece of it as a stake), and can barely afford one hot dog (no condiments) at the cafe. The meeting of Buffy and Pike’s sensibilities is visualized at the school dance when she wears his leather jacket over her gown (torn off for mobility during fights), an image Whedon liked enough to re-use for the first season finale of the TV show.
Even as it gets more serious there are some clever jokes. Buffy thinks vampires can’t enter the gym unless they’re invited, but it’s the senior dance, and they’re seniors, so they’re already invited. Also she holds a cross up to a vampire, he puts his hand on it, causing it to catch on fire, to show he’s unimpressed, but then she sprays hairspray on it to torch his face. As would become Whedon’s trademark, it has some funny lines and cutesy language quirks, like Buffy reacting to Merrick in the locker room by asking, “What are you doing here? This is a naked place” or Amilyn saying, “You ruined my new jacket. Kill him alot!” On the TV version Whedon further developed and popularized his distinct form of slangy, stylized dialogue, which got formulaic and especially annoying after others started imitating it, but he was very good at it and it was fun for a while.
Of course, we gotta credit Daniel Waters and HEATHERS as the godfather of this approach to teen dialogue – BUFFY even borrows the term “what’s your damage?” But re-watching this now I was surprised to make the connection that BUFFY must’ve itself been an inspiration for another teen classic, CLUELESS. You can chalk up a certain amount of it to satirizing the same California teen culture, but it’s striking how similar the colorful clothing (costume designer: Maria France, PURPLE RAIN, UNDER THE CHERRY MOON, BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, ENCINO MAN), bubbly mall conversations and failed-grasp-of-social-issues jokes are between the two. They even shop at the same mall (Westfield Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks) and both want to marry Christian Slater (FERNGULLY: THE LAST RAIN FOREST).
Buffy’s arch-nemesis is the vampire master Lothos (Rutger Hauer, SPLIT SECOND), who knows they’re connected and enjoys toying with her, even letting her go to wait until she’s better prepared to challenge him. His most memorable stooge is Amilyn (Paul Reubens, BATMAN RETURNS), a character who’s played straight but made enjoyably camp by the casting of Reubens. It’s funny to see him fume at being outplayed by these dumb teens – he loses an arm after jumping on Pike’s van and there are a couple good lines taunting him about it. I’d say the most famous scene in the movie is when he dies and takes longer than expected to do it.
A nice visual idea is staging a fight at a storage facility for parade floats so that there’s lots of weird stuff in the background. (See also: HARD TARGET.) And setting the final battle at the school dance is the natural and perfect way to combine these genres. High pressure teen ritual crossed/compared with chaotic monster battle.
Swanson is good in the role, and seems to have worked hard to learn kicks and stuff. I like seeing Perry get to be funny, since he was mostly known for a broody character. One novelty here is the number of later-familiar faces in small to tiny roles. Swank’s part is pretty big for a first timer, and a future two-time best actress winner as a jerky friend in a teen movie is always a fun time. Stephen Root (V.I. WARSHAWSKI) plays the principal a few years before NewsRadio brought him to my attention. Ricki Lake’s cameo as a waitress is casual enough to seem like a pre-fame bit part, but she’d already been in HAIRSPRAY and CRY-BABY, so it’s really just pre-talk-show-host. Natasha Gregson Wagner (in her third movie) has a small part as a vampire victim. Tom Jane (the same year he did NEMESIS) is credited as “Tom Janes” playing a character named Zeph, but I couldn’t spot him. I did notice Ben Affleck as a basketball player. Alexis Arquette plays a vampire who bumrushes the DJ at the school dance. IMDb and every trivia slideshow about the movie claim that Slash of Guns ’n’ Roses is the first DJ, but it sure doesn’t look like him to me. I’m also skeptical about claims that Seth Green (later on the TV show) is a vampire extra. It doesn’t look like him, and he’d been doing speaking roles for years by then.
BUFFY was featured alongside ENCINO MAN in a May 17th Los Angeles Times article about smaller youth oriented movies expected to take on the blockbusters during the summer. At that time it was said to have wrapped only two weeks earlier, but Fox was so impressed by the dailies that they moved the release date up and the domestic marketing president said, “We really have our summer kind of scheduled around BUFFY.” It ended up opening at #5 (#1 was DEATH BECOMES HER) but made $16 million on a $7 million budget. So, maybe not living up to the hype of the article, but not a disaster.
It does not seem to have gotten Kuzui any jobs. Her third and final directing credit on IMDb is for the 4-minute making-of featurette included on the blu-ray. But she and her husband Kaz produced a few things (TELLING LIES IN AMERICA, ORGAZMO) and started a company that imports American films to Japan and vice versa.
Whedon, on the other hand, quickly established himself as an in-demand script doctor, doing rewrites for THE GETAWAY, WATERWORLD and TWISTER and receiving lots of public (but not onscreen) credit for his work on SPEED. He did receive credit on TOY STORY, earning him an Oscar nomination, and got the prime gig of writing the next ALIEN movie, in which he used the power of cloning to undo one of Weird Summer’s biggest events (the death of Ellen Ripley in ALIEN 3). Like BUFFY, ALIEN RESURRECTION is a movie he publicly trashes as untrue to what he wrote.
The company behind BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was, believe it or not, Dolly Parton’s Sandollar Productions. They had produced the Academy Award winning documentary COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT, plus FATHER OF THE BRIDE and STRAIGHT TALK. Their television division’s president and CEO Gail Berman suggested the idea of turning BUFFY into a show, and though Whedon was now a Hollywood hotshot, he jumped at the chance to do Buffy the way he’d imagined it.
The show aired on the WB network five years after the movie, which it treated as backstory. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) moves to another town and gets back into slaying when she meets a new “watcher” and learns that the town is on a “Hellmouth” that attracts monsters and weirdness. There are changes, of course: the vampires can’t fly, and they turn to dust when they’re staked, and Buffy’s mom isn’t an idiot anymore. But the biggest switch up is tonal. There’s still plenty of character humor, but the show treats its horror mythology with absolute seriousness, and has the time to develop all kinds of soap opera style melodrama with crushes and relationships and broken hearts. For its time it was provocative in its willingness to kill beloved characters or turn them into evil demons. And it pioneered the then novel, now sorely missed format of a monster-of-the-week show that can be watched as mostly stand alone episodes but develops a larger story over the course of the season, building to a confrontation with a “Big Bad” – which in fact is a term coined and used frequently by the characters on the show.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer lasted for seven seasons, supplemented by five seasons of the spinoff Angel, plus a later comic book series representing a season 8, and another spinoff comic called Fray taking place in a distant future. It’s safe to say it made a bigger mark on pop culture than the movie. I think it pretty clearly inspired decades of soapy genre shows from Charmed to Roswell to Teen Wolf and those set the stage for all the Arrowverse DC Comics shows and many others. Whedon himself followed up with the quickly cancelled but culty popular sci-fi show Firefly (2002) and its movie followup SERENITY (2005). He wrote some X-Men comics, created an okay show called Dollhouse (2009), and wrote and produced THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.
By this time Whedon was a brand name and well recognized voice, regardless of the financial success of the individual projects. He was treated as nerd culture royalty, but also everybody’s buddy. They called him “Joss.” He had been ahead of the curve as far as film and TV makers interacting with fans on the internet, first through an official Buffy bulletin board, later as a prolific early user of Twitter. Which is probly part of how he ended up writing and directing the third highest grossing movie of all time.
It’s easy to forget now after a decade plus of even more ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universing, but THE AVENGERS (2012) was something of a miracle. No one had tried a thing like that – making four separate movies and then crossing them over into one. Many comic book fans took it as a given that it would work, but I don’t think it was – we didn’t really know if semi-realistic-ish Iron Man, old timey cornball Captain America, fantasy viking Thor and the Incredible Hulk (now played by a different actor because the first guy didn’t work out) would really mesh on screen. Whedon pulled it off and, at least at the time, his trademark quippy dialogue was a big part of what pulled audiences in. I think Marvel’s tendency to follow its super heroics with self-deprecating jokes comes straight from him, and though I quickly became wary of it, it was a new approach to comic book movies at that time.
What a twenty journey that was, from frustrated writer of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER to director of the most successful movie ever made that was not directed by James Cameron. And yet in the ten years since then Whedon has become persona non grata.
It was kind of a camel’s back situation. First AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) didn’t go over that well. Then he took over JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), and that was widely hated. That same year his ex-wife published an essay about him cheating on her with young actresses from his shows for 15 years, abusing his power and being a fake feminist. Though it didn’t seem to slow his career, it shattered the image that his dedicated fans had of him as a cool guy they could be friends with. So there weren’t many left to give him the benefit of the doubt when, in 2020, he was reported to have been a total fucking asshole to the cast of JUSTICE LEAGUE, and then multiple actresses and writers from Buffy and Angel came out with endless stories of him being “casually cruel” and demeaning to them throughout the making of those beloved shows.
Whedon denied some of it, half-assedly apologized for some of it, left his HBO show The Nevers, claimed to be in therapy. I make no claims about whether he should make movies or TV shows again or how I would feel about watching them. But I wanted to bring all of this up because I think the seeds of his alleged toxic attitudes are visible right here in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.
Vulture did a really in-depth and fascinating profile of Whedon that thoroughly detailed the situation. Watching BUFFY this time, I remembered this passage:
“On our second day of interviews, I asked Whedon about his affairs on the set of Buffy. He looked worse than he had the day before. His eyes were faintly bloodshot. He hadn’t slept well. ‘I feel fucking terrible about them,’ he said. When I pressed him on why, he noted ‘it messes up the power dynamic,’ but he didn’t expand on that thought. Instead, he quickly added that he had felt he ‘had’ to sleep with them, that he was ‘powerless’ to resist. I laughed. ‘I’m not actually joking,’ he said. He had been surrounded by beautiful young women — the sort of women who had ignored him when he was younger — and he feared if he didn’t have sex with them, he would ‘always regret it.’”
I thought of that during Pike and Benny’s conversation after clashing with Buffy and friends at the cafe.
“Those rich bitches, they’re a plague,” Benny says. “They gotta be stopped.”
“What, you didn’t like ‘em?” Pike asks.
“I mean they’re all the same. They’re just so stuck up. It’s like they’re not even human. I hate ‘em.”
“Yeah, but would you bone ‘em?”
“Yes, definitely. Definitely. Please, God. Especially the blonde. Ooh, I’d give my right eye for a piece of that.”
Pike laughs at that, but to be fair he doesn’t agree, and says, “You don’t even like her, and you’d sleep with her. What is that?” Still, I think it’s a reflection of that “the sort of women who had ignored him when he was younger” stuff. Benny wants to have sex with “the blonde” as revenge against the “stuck up rich bitches.” Pike has the non-hostile version of the fantasy, but it comes from the same place: I say I don’t like the beautiful blonde normal girl, but I would give anything to be with her. That would show ‘em.
So this brings us back to that now-familiar arc – the rise of the weirdos, the outsiders and the nerds, the underdogs who I relate to and root for, but some of them turn out to be just as bad as the other guys. Just because you’re born a circus freak doesn’t mean it’s okay to be The Penguin. You should still be a nice person. Being different is the reward, not the motive for revenge on society (and women).
Ironically, Whedon’s last movie to date is sort of a reverse of the 1992 BUFFY situation when he felt the director and studio had failed his vision. On 2017’s JUSTICE LEAGUE he was the guy hired by the studio to rewrite, reshoot and re-edit another director’s unfinished movie. Original director Zack Snyder was at odds with Warner Brothers when he left to deal with a family tragedy. Under the theory that the movie wasn’t working, it made sense to bring in veteran script doctor/AVENGERS director Whedon to try to salvage it. But just as Whedon’s TV Buffy proved that his more serious vision of the story was better, the later streaming release of ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE proved that most of Whedon’s changes derailed and watered down what was at the very least a singular super hero epic. Whedon had taken out much of the drama and grandeur and made a joke out of it. Pullin’ a Kuzui on it, he might say.
So, who knows. There may be no more films by Joss Whedon, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer adventures. In 2018 it was reported that the Kazuis were working on a remake of the BUFFY movie, unrelated to Whedon or the TV show, which inspired more confusion than excitement. The same year there was an announcement of a sequel TV series with a new, more diverse cast and a “Slayer of color.” It was to be run by Monica Owusu-Breen, whose producing credits include the Buffy-inspired Charmed and Whedon-created Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with Whedon executive producing or something. It was never said if they would bring back any of the original characters/cast, but it seems like a no-brainer – it’s a show that’s absolutely ripe for one of these legacy-sequel type followups they do now. The only problem is, how could you do it without Whedon, and more than that, how could you do it with him? I don’t know.
In 1992, there probly wasn’t one person on earth who would’ve predicted that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER would have all this legacy and complicated history in 30 years, if it was remembered at all. But here we are. Anyway, it’s not a bad movie. I kinda like it.
time capsule/dated stuff:
Jeffrey eats “Doritos Light”! Principal with hippie past, mentions Doobie Brothers. Joke about believing Elvis is alive. Shabba Ranks record displayed on DJ stand.
Note: The name “Buffy” was not one you ever heard in real life back then – it was hacky comedy shorthand for a dumb lady; now when you hear it it always means the TV show based on this movie (or once in a blue moon Buffy the Human Beat Box from the Fat Boys).