The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
I never watched the hugely beloved television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer during its original run. Only recently have I decided to give the show a look — as of this writing, I’m in the middle of the second season — and it’s living up to all the affection its supporters have shown it over the years. However, whenever a discussion about the 1992 feature film comes up, it’s often met with instant dismissal from the show’s supporters. With the tragic death of Luke Perry, I felt it was time to revisit Buffy’s first outing.
To be frank, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no misunderstood masterpiece. It’s well known that screenwriter Joss Whedon was unhappy with the numerous changes that were made to his original script once production started. And though those darker elements would find their way into the show, the film ends up being a very broad comedy that borders on outright spoof. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it’s in constant contention with the movie’s desire to actually land some bigger emotional beats and effective horror. Also, this movie is clearly a victim of choppy editing. The pacing never finds a smooth flow and scene transitions rarely feel propulsive and motivated.
That all said, there is still a lot to really enjoy about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though it wasn’t its creator’s intention, the movie finds a bubblegum tone that’s unique and cheerful for this kind of story. The bright color palette and glib sensibility actually make the movie seem like it got made in the ‘80s but was shelved for years before getting released in the early ‘90s. It’s not hard to see this movie as a double feature with Teen Wolf. Though the actual direction is frequently flat, there is some sense of knowing vapidity that makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer stand out in comparison to its peers.
By far, the best aspect of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is its casting. Yes, Sarah Michelle Gellar would go on to define Buffy as a character and be able to treat her as a fully fleshed out person. But, Kristy Swanson is having a lot of fun with what she’s being given. Her version of Buffy is a sketch instead of a portrait, but that allows her to be cartoony in ways that are genuinely entertaining. Buffy does get an arc in the film — a basic but functional one — and it’s never a bad time to watch Swanson be totally over all this vampire nonsense. If she had been given more time and material to make Buffy a well-rounded character, I believe her performance would have supported that.
There are also a number of tongue-in-cheek turns from a bevy of notable character actors. Though Donald Sutherland is probably the weakest link in this ensemble, the villains get a number of moments to shine. Best of all is probably David Arquette as the recently transformed Benny. Arquette is channeling the Joker in his look and attitude, and it’s a delight whenever he shows up to mug for the camera. The dependable Paul Reubens camps up the joint as head henchman Amilyn. He maybe goes too overboard with a few gags, but its hard not to jive with his purposeful cornball behavior. And Rutger Hauer doesn’t get the kind of screen time he deserves, but his few bits of hammy acting are welcome when they happen. The shot of him hovering in the air and whipping his cape open before feeding on a young girl is a simple but cool effect.
And then there is Luke Perry as Pike. Of all the cast members, Perry is the one who really clicks with the material and character. Pike is the stereotypically shiftless bad boy that ends up as Buffy’s beau, but Perry knows just the right balance of smarm and sweetness to bring to the role. What’s great about Pike is that he’s the only other character besides Buffy that realizes what’s going on with all these vampires. When Buffy refuses her destiny as the Slayer, Pike is there to support her, give her the tools she needs for the job, and stand back while the hero goes to work. It’s a clever and progressive role that would be broken apart and reshaped for several characters in the series, but I think Pike is probably the one character that comes out looking the best from a writing standpoint.
When all is said and done, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends up coming off as a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon show more than a self-contained film. That sounds like a dig but it isn’t if you’re someone who likes Saturday morning cartoon shows. The movie makes up for its lack of depth with a perky spirit, vibrant production design, and a kooky cast that often keeps the ship from sinking. I’m glad that the premise and character got to find new life on the small screen, but Buffy’s big screen adventure isn’t without merit. If the series is a full-course meal, then the movie is a sugary breakfast cereal. And I’m always down to have a bowl of that when I can.