Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of All The Lousy Ways To Start, Buffy The Vampire Slayer The Movie Is Pure Camp!

The Good: Decent concept, Moments of witty dialogue
The Bad: Terrible acting, Lack of genuine character development, Not great DVD bonus features, Plot
The Basics: Completely disappointing - especially for fans of the television series - Buffy The Vampire Slayer presents the origin of the latest Slayer, who happens to be very much an L.A. teen!

"They" say you can't go back again, but every now and then, I suppose I give it the old college try! After all, technically, you can't go back to somewhere you have never been, right? What I mean by this is that having seen and reviewed all of the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer (reviewed here!) and its spin-offs, I felt it was time to finally go back and watch the cinematic endeavor that started it all, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Believe it or not, I had never seen the film! So, at long last, I sat down to watch it.

I suppose it is a good thing that I did not attempt to start at the beginning; the film version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is so unrefined, poorly-acted and obvious in its plot and breakdown that I am certain it would have scared me away from the television series if I had started with that instead! Truth be told, I have an immense appreciation for the works of writer-director Joss Whedon and still it is almost impossible to recommend to fans and certainly to casual viewers that they subject themselves to this original film, which was written by Joss Whedon and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui.

Buffy is a high school girl living in Los Angeles where she is a cheerleader, socialite and generally vacuous teen. While around her, there are a few strange disappearances, Buffy continues dating her boyfriend, judging her friends and avoiding freaks, like the loner rebel Pike. However, she soon finds herself unable to avoid all of the weirdness in Los Angeles when her parents leave town for a weekend and she finds herself stalked by the mysterious Merrick. Merrick, far from being the predator Buffy initially thinks he is, has actually arrived to help Buffy achieve her destiny.

As it turns out, Merrick is a mentor, of sorts, reborn constantly to train Slayers. Buffy, as it turns out, is a Slayer, a killer of vampires. Endowed with certain innate skills, Buffy follows in a long line of Slayers, though she is certainly the most annoying Merrick has had to train. While vampire king Lothos begins using his minions to build an army in Los Angeles, Buffy and Merrick train to stop them with Pike quickly realizing the truth and joining the fight against the vampires as well!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an unfortunate film that is, quite simply, pure camp. It is hokey - sometimes in a good way - but more often than not, it seems like a concept film that the participants are so unsure of that they do not know how to present it. The result is a movie that defies genre, not truly being funny for most of the film. Nor does it succeed in being truly terrifying or scary. Instead, it exists in a strange middle-ground limbo that is neither dramatic, comedic or horrific. And while some films can successfully defy such genre boundaries, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is executed in a way that leaves the viewer with the impression that it does not know what it wants to be and ultimately, it ends up being a remarkably unsatisfying teensploitation film.

This incarnation of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is all about laying out the foundations, building up the ideas of the Slayer mythos. So, the viewer is expected to believe in the existence of vampires and their presence in Los Angeles. These vampires have the ability to levitate, suck blood to reproduce, and fight with super strength. As well, they are unable to be killed, save by a stake through the heart or decapitation. Holy water burns their flesh and they are able to keep fighting even after their limbs are removed. Some of the more powerful - and ancient - ones have a hypnotic effect, like Lothos, who is able to hold Buffy in his thrall.

On the other side of this battle for the survival of humanity, there are the Slayers. Merrick describes the long line of Slayers, born into each generation, activated upon the death of the prior one. Slayers have great speed - tested by Merrick throwing a knife at Buffy's head, which she catches - as well as increased stamina and strength. As well, Slayers have a collective unconscious of their own which allows them to recall the history of the other Slayers in dreams, which begin to disturb Buffy. And had the film focused more on the Slayers, the history and execution of them, the film might have succeeded.

As it is, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is crippled by the way the film tremendously tips the balance toward the high school life of Buffy. She is a teen queen, concerned with boys, shopping, fashion and popularity. The film spends far too much time creating her as an annoying anti-hero for most viewers to actually care about her character struggle as she learns that she has a destiny. Moreover, witless romantic subplots between Buffy and her boyfriend and Buffy and Pike drag the film down into the territory where Buffy becomes so unlikable that only teenage drama queens are likely to enjoy large tracts of the film.

As Buffy The Vampire Slayer progresses, though, the film fails to engage adult audiences, most notably because the villain is anything but menacing. Lothos, the vampire king, looks more like a sadistic Robert Goulet than an actual menace. Played by Rutger Hauer, the violin-plucking villain is more campy than menacing and, in fact, only seeks to lower the menace. Watching Buffy confront this mediocre adversary, the viewer is left feeling they are too much made for one another; Lothos is so unmenacing that he could only be a serious threat to a dimwitted, unwilling Slayer like Buffy. Truth be told, I alternated between the secret hope that Lothos would kill Buffy and the dull urge for Buffy to put him out of his misery quicker. In other words, if Buffy couldn't take out this vampire, she pretty much deserved to die.

What Buffy The Vampire Slayer does have is a pretty exceptional cast. The inexperience of such notable performers as Hilary Swank, David Arquette, Ben Affleck (who appears, uncredited, as a basketball player!) and Natasha Gregson Wagner seems to be the only excuse I can find for director Kuzui managing to woo them to the project. More experienced actors like Luke Perry (Pike), Paul Rubens, and Rutger Hauer (Lothos) seem to be involved in their attempts to break the molds they are usually cast in, though the irony is that Perry ends up as the badboy loner and Hauer ends up as the villain, which are pretty much the ruts both actors have always ended up in.

But the film depends largely on the talent of two actors: Donald Sutherland and Kristy Swanson. Sutherland plays Merrick and part of the problem with the film is that far too often, he delivers his lines as if he is rolling his eyes. Much of his dialogue is expository and he sounds bored saying a lot of it.

On the other hand, Swanson helps sink the film because she is - quite simply - too good in her role. Swanson so convincingly portrays Buffy as an insipid airhead that she makes the character entirely unlikable. And when Swanson as Buffy begins training, we are easily convinced she has the physical abilities to fight the vampire hordes, but we lack any ability to care about her at that point. Swanson nails the mannerisms and dialogue of the self-involved teenagers perfectly!

Unfortunately for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, at the end of the day, it makes this film virtually unwatchable. In fact, die-hard fans of the television franchise ought only to watch this if they are prepared to unite, en masse, and demand Joss Whedon remake the film in the television show's canon. Until then, it is best to leave this one for people who have nothing better to do than Mystery Science Theater 3000.

For other works written or created by Joss Whedon, please check out my reviews of:
Alien Resurrection


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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