Last time, I reviewed the first four minutes and 12 seconds of the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because that was as far through as I could get before I felt overwhelmed by the weirdness of it all. The movie predates by five full years the much more recognised 1997-2003 TV series, and has a completely different cast: the one character appearing both the movie and the TV show is Buffy herself, and in the movie that title role was played by Kirsty Swanson rather than Sarah Michelle Gellar.
And by the way, the first 3:35 of that 4:12 are credits and title sequence music.
It’s very strange watching this film. It’s not just that Swanson is a different actress playing a character that we know in Gellar’s incarnation; it’s that she’s playing a completely different character by the same name. In a comment on the previous article, Ttamsen suggested that “If you can somehow forget that it’s supposed to be Buffy, and just watch the movie as being about some *other* vampire slayer, it’s actually a highly entertaining bit of comic fluff.” I’d hoped to be able to agree with that, but sadly I can’t. It misses the mark badly in three areas — not just in comparison with the excellent TV series, but in comparison with other movies.
I give the film 1 out of 4 for casting. The story revolves very much around four characters: Buffy, of course; Lothos, the chief vampire; Merrick, Buffy’s pre-Giles Watcher; and Pike, her goofy sidekick/love interest. Of these, the first two are cast utterly wrongly, and the last two merely adequately.
- Kirsty Swanson fails, in the first instance, by being totally unconvincing as the fifteen-year-old girl that she is playing. There was not one single point in the film when I felt persuaded that I was looking at someone who still attended high-school rather than than, say, an actress in her mid-twenties. In fact I had her pegged at about 25, and when I later looked her up on Wikipedia, I was surprised to see that she was only 23 at the time the film was released. (By contrast, Gellar was 20 when Buffy started, playing a 16-year-old. Much easier to suspend disbelief.) Everything about her face, her expressions, how she moves, betrays the inauthenticity of the casting. Every attempt in the script to emphasise her youth (e.g. in dialogue such as “Oh, wow, look at that jacket! Oh, this is so lush! Wouldn’t you guys just love me in this?” and “Excuse much! Rude or anything?”) founders on this rock, and just ends up looking silly.
- On paper, Rutger Hauer (maybe best known as Roy Batty from Bladerunner) should have been perfect as Lothos, the chief vampire: physically imposing, capable of effortlessly menacing evil. As it turns out, he shrunk by a good 30% in the ten years between Bladerunner and Buffy, and grew a stupid moustache, and forgot how to act. I have rarely seen a less menacing vampire, and I had to check several sites after watching the film before I could make myself believe that this really was Hauer. I take no pleasure in saying this, but he’s considerably less imposing than his henchman Amilyn, played by Pee-wee Herman. I am not making this up.
- Donald Sutherland is rather a lot better as Buffy’s Watcher, Merrick. I found him a bit disconcerting in the role, because I mostly know him as Elizabeth Bennett’s father from the stellar 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice — one of my very favourite films. Once I’d got over that hump, and stopped expecting him to break off Buffy’s training at any moment to explain to her that if she marries Mr. Collins he will never see her again, I didn’t find much wrong with the performance, finding it only a little flavourless due to the lack of screen time. (I think the movie would have done better to keep him alive much further into the story.) I know that Joss Whedon strenuously dislikes his portrayal (“The Origin comic [uses] the series Merrick and not a certain OTHER thespian who shall remain hated”), but I don’t really understand why. So half a point for Sutherland. [Update, 18 May: in a comment below, Phillip Howell point out this interesting interview with Joss Whedon, which explains the Sutherland problem: basically, he re-wrote a lot of his lines — not to good effect.]
- Finally Pike, who is a wholly generic sidekick/love-interest with No Distinguishing Features, is played with diligence and competence but no inspiration whatever by Luke Perry. You could say that the character got the performance that its script deserved. Anyway, there’s nothing obviously wrong with him in this movie, as there is with Buffy and Lothos, so he also gets half a point.
So the casting is horribly wrong, and there’s not much any film can do to recover from that. And note here that I am not saying the casting is wrong because Swanson isn’t Gellar, Hauer isn’t James Marsters, Sutherland isn’t Anthony Head and Perry isn’t Nicholas Brendon. I’m talking about the intrinsic qualities of the performances: so far as possible, I’m writing as though I’d never seen the TV show.
Maybe even worse than the casting — because that might have been a mistake whereas this can only have been deliberate — is the frivolity. I choose that word carefully: I don’t mean lightheartedness (which can be good) and certainly not wit (which is always good, and is not incompatible with seriousness). By frivolity, I mean a sense that the characters themselves don’t believe in what is happening, and so constantly undercut the importance of the on-screen events. As we might expect, Buffy herself is the most consistent culprit, but she’s run close by Pike, who early on the film sees his best (only?) friend transformed into a vampire and never at any stage shows the least surprise, shock, fear or even regret. The characters in the film are playing a dressing-up game; and if they have no emotional investment in what’s going on, how can we?
The film’s frivolity is not the same thing as the triviality of the lead character. That, we must assume is a core part of the conceit; and although it’s handled badly (see below), what we would have left if we took it out completely would hardly be Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What makes the characters’ trivial concerns work in the Buffy TV series (yeah, OK, so I am comparing now) is that those concerns are sprinklings on a serious backdrop. They are the seasoning, not the meat. Xander’s continual wisecracking always has a hysterical edge, as though he is quipping like crazy only to fend off the terror that would otherwise claim him; Buffy’s attitude in the movie is very different — she cracks jokes because she doesn’t see anything to be scared of. Time, I think, to quote Andrew Rilstone yet again.
Ah, Gimli, Gimli, Gimli: a filmic catastrophe of Binksian proportions, undermining every, single scene he appears in. (Why the hell is he sitting in the stewards chair? Has he no respect for Faramir? Has Gandalf? Has Aragorn?) Yes, Peter Jackson, you were so, so right to cut out the “drinking competition” between Gimli and Legolas from [the Theatre version of] ROK. What on earth possessed you to put it back in [to the Extended Edition]? When someone is drunk in a movie, why does it invariably happens that they say “I am perfectly sober” and then fall over backwards? Have you ever seen a real drunk behave like this? So why put it in your movie? It’s not big. It’s not clever. […] Gimli is there, too in the extended build-up to the “Paths of the Dead” sequence. Spooky tendrils of mist form in the air and reach out to him, he blows very hard to disperse them, and they form again. He says “Ya-ya-ya-yoiks”, and Legolas throws him a Scooby Snack. He’s even there in the ruddy closing credits, making an anachronistic, vernacular “okay” sign. Showing his contempt for us all. Mocking us.
For Gimli, read both Buffy and Pike.
And it’s not just the good guys. When Lothos is killed at the end (uh-oh! Spoiler!), his final words upon being staked are “Now, I’m really pissed off”, a pause, then “Oops” and he dies. Just think about that: here we have an immortal vampire who has already lived for hundreds of years and expects to live for thousands more, finding that he’s been killed by an airhead … and all he has to say is “oops”? Talk about undermining. As I said: nothing is at stake. (Har! A stake pun!) Lothos doesn’t care that he’s been destroyed. So — again — why should we care? I don’t recall Roy Batty’s final words being “oops”.
Now we come to the third and fatal strike: I don’t like movie-Buffy. As you’ll remember from my Season 1 retrospective, one of the most powerful aspects of the TV series that draws me into it is simply that I like the characters so much. They are fun to be around, but also brave, sacrifical, often intelligent, occasionally insightful, and genuinely dedicated to each other. Movie Buffy is none of these things: she can’t be brave because she isn’t scared of anything; she doesn’t make any sacrifices unless you count skipping a cheerleading practice; she never shows the slightest sign of intelligence, far less insight, and I don’t see any dedication at all either to her three high-school friends or to Pike. So what’s to like? Why would I be cheering for her rather than for the vampire? (Apart from the fact that the vampire somhow has even less charisma than her, I mean.)
Early on, one of Movie-Buffy’s friends says “You got a C-plus? I can’t believe I cheated off of you.” Buffy replies, “Excuse me for not knowing about El Salvador, like I’m ever going to Spain anyway.” That’s actually a pretty funny line, and appropriate for early in the film when Buffy is a thoroughly trivial person with thoroughly trivial friends. It belongs there. But when she’s still saying the same kinds of things an hour and a half later, it’s apparent that there’s no character arc: she’s not grown, nor even recognised the importance of her role as Slayer. She’s the same dumb blonde we saw at the start the film. The training sequence half an hour in (which, by the way, just begs to be redubbed with Eye of the Tiger) makes her physically stronger but has absolutely no effect on her character. She was, and remains, part of a small and supercilious clique of rich girls who look down on their peers.
Surely the point of the film is that the shallow girl that we see and dismiss early on becomes someone admirable by the end? But that doesn’t happen here. Despite all the carnage at the school dance, there is no sense that, once it’s been cleaned up, she won’t go straight back to her previous group of shallow friends. In fact, the film is Cordelia the Vampire Slayer, only without the dazzling smile. And as we all know, while Buffy is complex and interesting and deep and likeable enough to carry a series on her own, Cordelia is not.
So. The point of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the TV series is that Buffy is a normal girl caught up in a strange and terrifying world. In the movie, she is a strange and frivolous girl caught up in a world that is also strange and frivolous, though in a different way. Is it any wonder that she doesn’t change or grow?
So is there anything to like?
I want to finish on a positive note, because I find relentlessly negative reviews depressing to read. (One my my favourite review blogs, as used to be, has become more and more negative over the past couple of years, to the point where I can hardly bring myself to read it any more, because it’s just no fun.)
So what’s to like about the Buffy movie? I did like the moment around 37 minutes in when Merrick attempts a joke — a slightly lame one — and there is a shared moment of enjoyment between Buffy and him. For that moment, it felt like there was an actual relationship there. The touchy-feely basketball coach is funny, though he only pops up for a few lines. And I couldn’t help sniggering at “They had this look in their eyes, totally cold, animal. I think they were young Republicans”, which I think is funny whatever your political persuasion. There were other funny one-liners, but their value is undercut because they don’t emerge from anything. They’re not a reaction to an escalating situation or an expression of character — they’re just in there because a scriptwriter thought they sounded good.
So all in all, I’m afraid it’s a resounding thumbs down for Buffy the movie. I’m glad I saw it, but only for its historical significance as a precursor to Buffy proper; and because having seen all the things it got wrong, it’s helping me to appreciate anew how much real Buffy gets right.
We’ve not had much sushi in this review, so let’s finish with a truly spectacular photo.