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Looking Back: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)

A famous incident in my family’s lifelong tradition of seeing movies together occurred one afternoon at a matinee of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” Fran Rubel Kazui’s summer comedy just opened at the Wharf Cinema Center and I convinced my Dad to take my brother and I to see it. The title made my Dad understandably skeptical but informing him that Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer and Pee-Wee Herman were all in the same movie got him interested. The three of us were the only ones in the theater for the first showing on opening weekend, save for a young girl in her early teens, who sat in the row behind us with her little friend. After only a few minutes into the movie, it became clear what the girl behind us had been up to; it seemed she had tired of her family vacation, ditched them altogether and had gone with her friend to see this movie, repeatedly. How do I know this? She recited most of Buffy’s dialog verbatim from start to finish. She’d even blurt out small, dumb little lines like, “You got any gum?” She knew them all and uttered them every time Buffy opened her mouth. Because it was a small theater and no one else was there, neither my Dad, brother, nor I said anything. We knew that, no matter where we moved to in the theater, we’d hear her. I guess we were so against confronting this kid that, against our better judgment, we never thought to alert an usher and get her tossed out.

Here’s the thing- the Joss Whedon-penned lines in his “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” movie are almost entirely unworthy of recitation. Okay, I like the bit about Dolby stereo and how Buffy wants to marry Chrsitian Slater (who didn’t in 1992?) but really, the movie is a dud. Now, of course, the film has a small, sheepish cult following, due to the celebrated, tonally on-point TV series that came afterwards. Whedon belatedly got to fine tune and properly expand the established plot threads his movie mangled.

Kristy Swanson stars as Buffy, a bubble-brained high school cheerleader who is informed by the morose Merrick (Sutherland) that she’s from a long line of vampire slayers. Buffy learns how to be an efficient vampire dispatcher and manages to plan her prom at the same time.

The problem is that the movie barely seems to have a pulse, let alone a playful attempt at genre blending. Whedon’s dialog is sometimes very funny but it’s also consistently too-hip-for-the-room droll. The entire movie is like that, too self aware and detached to commit to either the mall girls or the un-dead. Like a lot of failed horror comedies, this is never scary and only kind of funny.

Arriving the same year as Stephen King’s quasi-vampire send-up “Sleepwalkers,” John Landis’ grisly and goofy “Innocent Blood” and Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent, operatic and gore-soaked “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” seemed especially sheepish and half-assed by comparison. The PG-13 rating allows for only the tamest of vampire kills, as well as high school shenanigans tamer than you’d find in a “Bill and Ted” sequel. Perhaps the low budget couldn’t be overcome, but why do the vampires all sport Vulcan ears and poor Halloween make-up? As far as mixing a mild but persistent commentary on the high school experience as a horror movie ordeal to survive, nothing here matches “Teen Wolf.” In comparison to “Buffy,’ the Michael J. Fox werewolf comedy genuine laughs, actual scares and offers a thoughtful (if wimpy) allegory on teenage changes and life lessons.

One of the most entertaining qualities of this movie is the star gazing it allows. It seems every cast member was either big in 1992 or on their way to the superstardom level.

Nineties actors Andrew Lowery (star of the much-worse teen horror/comedy “My Boyfriend’s Back”), Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Randall Batinkoff (who seemingly always played students) turn up in supporting roles. So do Ben Affleck, Hillary Swank and David Arquette (whose fearlessly over the top turn is a highlight). A pre-“Office Space” Stephen Root, a pre-talk show host Ricki Lake and (very briefly) later “Buffy” TV series regular Seth Green also pop up.

In her biggest film role, Swanson is ideal in the title character but, like everyone else on hand, Kuzui’s lackadaisical direction and Whedon’s screenplay lets her down. By the end of the film, we should sense an enormous inner growth and greater understanding, but Buffy doesn’t seem all that different at the fade-out. Swanson commits to making her really dumb in the early stretch but doesn’t allow us to share her enlightened sense of awareness.

Carter Burwell’s unusually snooze-inducing score fails to give this a much needed kick in the pants but the pop songs (particularly under-appreciated gems by C+C Music Factory and The Divinyls) are fun and peppy. There’s also Paul Reubens’ movie-stealing bit as the evil henchmen. He looks oddly like Tom Savini in this. It’s bizarre seeing him in this but Reubens’ weird, what-me-worry performance is inspired. Hauer and Sutherland give it their all, like the pros they are, but Luke Perry deserves better than playing the high school loser in need of redemption. Perry’s film career, like his “90210” co-star Jason Priestley, deserved to go farther than it ultimately did.

As a curiosity item, the movie certainly delivers some very curious and oddball sights. Yet, it never becomes the clever genre hybrid or instant cult classic that it clearly aspired to achieve from the beginning. On TV, Buffy reigned from 1997-2003. As a movie, she crashed landed on July 31st 1992…unless you’re that little girl who knows all the lines from the movie. That darn kid is likely the charter member of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Movie Fan Club.

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