Does the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Movie Actually Suck?

Twenty-five years after its release, the TV show's filmic predecessor still has a few glaring flaws.

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Aug 1 2017, 3:03pm

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

Any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan worth her "Team Spike" T-shirt knows the Buffy Summers origin story. As TV show creator Joss Whedon recently put it: "In the mid-1980s, I'd gotten so tired of slasher film cliché, especially the dumb, oversexed blond stumbling into a dark place to have sex with a boyfriend, only to be killed. I began thinking that I would love to see a scene where a ditsy blond walks into a dark alley, a monster attacks her, and she kicks its ass."

Buffy 1.0 may have fit that general description, but she was still miles from the pithy, conflicted Sarah Michelle Gellar character who became a third-wave feminist icon. Released on July 31, 1992, nearly five years before the TV show premiered, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie was panned by critics, proving even a disappointment to writer Whedon, who claimed that Hollywood had distorted his script beyond recognition: "I had written this scary film about an empowered woman, and they turned it into a broad comedy. It was crushing."

The Buffy TV series made Whedon a hero, especially to the female and queer audiences that late-90s geek culture generally ignored. More recently, though, a new generation of fangirls has called his progressive credentials into question. The death of Tara (Amber Benson), the first girlfriend of Buffy's groundbreaking lesbian character, Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), is now remembered as an egregious example of pop culture's disturbing and ubiquitous "bury your gays" trope. The show's all-white ensemble cast seems impossible to justify. And in June, a leaked copy of Whedon's shelved Wonder Woman script provoked a backlash that suggested "hot chick saves the world" no longer sounds like such a revolutionary premise.

There's no doubt that the TV version of Buffy—which remains one of the greatest dramas in the history of television, despite its various flaws—is superior to the movie in every way. On the latter's 25th anniversary, though, it seems fair to ask not only whether the film sucks, but whether the fault for some of its failures lies in Whedon's original concept.

Although it's implied that the show takes place after the events of the movie, the two share similar story arcs: A bookish older man approaches a beautiful blond girl and informs her that she is "the Chosen One"—the one girl in the world who has been marked as humanity's savior from vampires and other forces of evil. He is her Watcher, a combination of teacher, coach, and protector, who will use his encyclopedic knowledge of the supernatural to help keep her safe. At first, Buffy resists—she just wants to be a normal teenager—but she eventually accepts her fate, kicking some vampire ass while becoming a smarter, stronger, kinder person.

But while she may represent a subversive response to 80s slasher flicks, the original Buffy Summers doesn't diverge much from popular sexist stereotypes. As played by Kristy Swanson, Buffy's a Valley girl—the kind of materialistic, Southern California teen queen who was christened in a 1982 song by Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit and fleshed out the following year in a movie of the same name. An early scene has Buffy and her popular friends flaunting their vapidity in the mall, speaking in nearly incomprehensible Valspeak as they complain about a local movie theater's "bogus corn" (as in "popcorn") and use "what a homeless" as an insult. It's probably a good thing that Amy Heckerling got the last word on valley girls in Clueless, the stock character having grown stale by the time Buffy debuted on the WB.

By the end of the movie, Buffy is a bimbo no more. She's grown into her Slayer birthright after extensive training from her Watcher, Merrick (Donald Sutherland), using her impressive gymnastic abilities to stake vampires instead of leading cheers for the Hemery High basketball team. (Side note: The cheerleading uniforms are really fucking strange.) Her new obligation alienates Buffy from her friends, who can't imagine what could be more important than planning the big school dance, and her dickish jock boyfriend Jeffrey (Randall Batinkoff). She upsets Hemery's social order by easily incapacitating a guy who grabs her ass.

Meanwhile, Buffy starts spending time with Pike (Luke Perry in his most Luke Perry role this side of Dylan McKay), a biker outcast who becomes her partner in vampire hunting. They fend off the bloodsuckers who descend on the school dance in the movie's climactic battle, and after she stakes the vampire king Lothos (Rutger Hauer), they come together for a slow song and a typical Joss Whedon exchange: "I suppose you want to lead," says Pike. "No," Buffy demurs. "Me neither." "This is a good thing."

In the final scene, they ride off into the sunrise on Pike's motorcycle, Buffy clinging to his back. Equality! An escape from patriarchal norms! Except, of course, Pike is still the one with his hands on the steering wheel. If you've seen enough other low-budget horror flicks from the 80s and early 90s, it's hard to complain too much about this supposedly subversive movie's reliance on sexist stereotypes or heteronormative happy endings. Compared with the films that inspired Whedon to create Buffy, it certainly represents progress.

Part of what makes Buffy the show so much better than Buffy the movie is the longer timeline that television provides. Buffy Summers spends the vast majority of the film's running time as the "ditz" Whedon originally envisioned, a valley girl whose Slayer powers set her apart from her superficial friends. Maybe that's what Whedon meant when he said that, after seeing Swanson's Buffy, "I felt like—well, that's not quite her. It's a start, but it's not quite the girl."

But one of the Buffy film's biggest problems is the failure to make his heroine a relatable character. It's clear that viewers are supposed to identify with Pike, the outsider who sees right through Hemery High's social structure and is secure enough in his masculinity to handle a girlfriend who could break him in two. The movie assumes its audience is male and supports a familiar teenage boy fantasy where the misfit dude ends up with the hot cheerleader. That isn't a crime, but it is a pretty tired teen-movie plot.

The WB's take on Buffy didn't take long to develop its lead into a multidimensional, emotionally realistic character—and, just as crucially, it made her the outsider, a new girl in town and the center of a co-ed clique of lovable outcasts that eventually included a lesbian couple. As a result, its overarching high-school-as-hell metaphor resonated with just about every kind of kid for whom teenage life was a daily gauntlet of small humiliations. The original Buffy might have been the empowered ditz Whedon thought he wanted, but it took five more years for him and Gellar to create the Slayer girls needed.

Follow Judy Berman on Twitter.

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