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Remembering the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ movie, which is a fantastically campy thrill ride
“Does the word ‘duh’ mean anything to you?”
Buffy has been staking vampires a little longer than most people realize. While Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) began in 1997, a movie with the same name came out in 1992. Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, it’s not really connected to the saga of Sunnydale, but the basics are there.
Currently streaming on Peacock, the first iteration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t a box office bomb, but critics didn’t really take to it. It wasn’t as popular as the television series eventually became, but the show would not have shaken out the same way without the movie coming first.
It is almost impossible to think of anyone other than Sarah Michelle Gellar in the role of Buffy Summers, and that’s the first hurdle that you'll have to leap over if you want to enjoy the film. Kristy Swanson was the first Buffy, and while she’s not Gellar, she's quite good. The broad strokes are similar, but Swanson’s Buffy doesn’t come with any of the history or baggage. This movie is what gives Buffy all of the baggage that she shows up with in the series. Swanson has entirely different notes to play, so any comparison isn't truly logical.
When the movie starts, Buffy has no idea that she is a slayer. That information comes to her from Merrick, played by the always-effective Donald Sutherland. He plays the role of “watcher” in the movie, and he teaches Buffy (and the audience) about vampires, slayers, chosen ones, etc. As hard as it is to think of Buffy without Gellar, it’s equally hard to think of Buffy’s watcher being played by anyone other than Anthony Stewart Head. It’s Donald Sutherland though, so we go with it.
Where the movie truly shines is in the boy department, because the dearly departed Luke Perry is present in the role of Oliver Pike. Things with him and his friend Benny (David Arquette) mirror the Buffy TV pilot a little, as one of these two friends (Benny) is turned early on. Oliver has to get help from Buffy, someone he doesn’t like. She’s a snob and he’s not— they do not mix.
Until the movie mixes them, that is, and things eventually turn romantic. Perry always showed that he could have chemistry with a garbage can if a project required it, so his rapport with Swanson is wonderful.
As for the villains, you’ve got both Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer. Yep, you’re in good hands. Swanson’s final duel with Hauer is satisfying, partially because it’s a joy to see Hauer in this movie in the first place. Buffy saves the senior dance (a gym full of students) from a full-on vamp attack, at one point using her hairspray as a flamethrower. Isn’t that cute? She speeds off with Oliver at the end, and though she’s won the day, Amilyn (Reubens) survives.
Does he ever show up on the series? He doesn’t, and that’s because the movie and the series are barely connected.
The major beats (kind of) connect when we meet Buffy on the show; she’s had to move because of an altercation at a former school, and she already knows that she is a slayer. That’s about it, because the rest of the continuity (the show was based on the original draft of the movie, which was changed) doesn’t track. She’s a senior in the movie, and a sophomore when the show starts. She’s rich in the movie, and she's definitely not rich on the show. Both of her parents in the movie are uppity stools— her mother is no Joyce Summers. Merrick shows up in a Season 2 flashback, but he is played by Richard Riehle. Sutherland did not come to the dubba-dubba-WB.
The tone of the movie is what sets it apart the most, because it doesn't take things are seriously as the show does. The show had its banter and gags, but the stakes (haha) were real. The drama was real, and the pathos was real. The show doesn't wink at you nearly as much as the movie does.
All of that said, the movie is a fun watch. If you can separate it from everything that came after, then you’ll have a good time. If you’ve never seen the show, you might have an even better time.
Swanson has the hardest (retroactive) job of winning audiences over, because she’s competing with someone who hadn’t even played the role yet when this movie was made. Nobody can ever, ever make the magic that Gellar made, and no one should ever try. For a first foray in a world where Gellar had not yet become the chosen one, Swanson takes you on a fun romp of pom-poms and stakes.
We’ve already talked about her chemistry with Perry, and no, they are not in the same league as Buffy and Angel. He’s a hellmouth of a lot better than Xander though. Reubens rises above and conquers every scene he’s in, and all Donald Sutherland has to do is appear on the screen to put us at ease. He also wears a boffo hat, and that cannot be underestimated.
A snooty LA girl turns out to have a vamp-tactic destiny! Oh, what fun, what hijinks will ensue! That’s what this is. Swanson doesn’t have to send Perry to hell and then vanish to become a waitress. Merrick doesn’t lose the love of his life in a scene of bloody horror. Eliza Dushku doesn’t torture an uncredited Ben Affleck, even though Dushku torture happens in Angel and not Buffy. Seth Green is here, but he’s not Oz. He plays the far more famous role of “Vampire” and like Affleck, he's uncredited.
The movie had a home release on both VHS and Laserdisc. The soundtrack begins with a track from C+C Music Factory. The shooting schedule had to accommodate Perry’s commitments to Beverly Hills, 90210. The only way that this could be more of an “early ’90’s” affair is if a laserdisc copy of the movie cut class, went to Taco Bell, and had a date with Kelly Kapowski.
Enjoy this movie for what it is, not for what it isn’t. Revel in the Swanson/Perry/Sutherland/Reubens/Hauer ’90s fun, and disconnect yourself from any Buffy canon that you may have in mind.
And now, you’re a coat rack.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is currently streaming on Peacock.