Before Buffy the Vampire Slayer became the greatest TV show of all time, it was a 1992 film, and the first big-screenwriting credit for a young Joss Whedon. As in “Whedon’t talk about that movie.”
Here, Buffy is played by teen movie stalwart and the closest thing Donald Trump has to a celebrity supporter, Kristy Swanson. Buffy is your stereotypical shallow, shopping-obsessed cheerleader, until Merrick the Watcher (a literal moustache-twirling performance from Donald Sutherland) informs her, incredibly creepily, that she is The Slayer, destined to kill vampires, played by the likes of Pee-wee Herman, David Arquette and Rutger Hauer. As in “Hauer you so bad in this?”
If you thought the first season of Buffy was painfully ’90s, get your fangs into the movie. Whedon leans heavily into camp comedy and fantastic teenage slang dialogue straight out of Heathers; Christian Slater even gets a name check. Yet disposable characters and weak plotting keep it from reaching Sabrina the Teenage Witch levels, let alone Heathers. And though Swanson makes a fine Buffy, she’s barely tested by the film’s not-so Big Bad (Hauer), whose moustache is the scariest thing about him by far. As for the historical flashbacks, these appear to have been lifted directly from Blackadder, except at no point does anyone have a plan, cunning or otherwise.
It is, however, massively entertaining, both as a comedy and a prequel to the TV show. For us Scoobies, it’s fun (if inessential) to see Buffy’s origins as an airheaded cheerleader, making her transformation into the headstrong young woman she would become by the end of the show all the more rewarding. But without the benefit of hindsight, there’s not a whole lot to this character, which explains why Buffy didn’t catch on until Sarah Michelle Gellar’s incarnation, who ingeniously subverts the stereotype in a way that’s missing here.
Although the show retained many key ingredients from the movie (high school satire, pop culture references, questionable costumes), it wisely darkened the tone, sharpened the vampire lore and jettisoned the idea that Buffy’s PMS acts as a vampire warning signal; a feminist nod and one of many head-scratching plot-points. Actually, the film’s most feminist moment comes out of nowhere, when Pike (Luke Perry) whispers, “You’re not like the other girls,” to which Buffy replies, “Yes I am.” It’s a tiny exchange that almost gets lost amongst the carnage, but does more to establish the character of Buffy Summers than a hundred clumsy stakings.
Eventually, television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer would strike the perfect balance between hip vampire pastiche and deep character-led drama. The movie finds Whedon’s ideas in their infancy; immature but infectious. With this film, he stakes his claim in the genre, and while a few years away from becoming TV gold, it easily takes home The Bronze.