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25 years later, the Buffy movie looks less like a dry run than a really messy first draft

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)

What am I doing here? I’m saving your butt! Well, there was sort of an exchange of butts, at least.

That line above? That’s some vintage Joss Whedon banter right there. It’s something you could imagine a character blurting out after bumbling into a graveyard on Whedon’s most enduringly popular creation, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It screams Xander. Or maybe Willow. No one would quote or possibly even remember that line if it popped up during a so-so episode of Buffy. But it stands out like a beacon of wit, a telltale sign of quips to come, in the 1992 horror-comedy containing it. The line is from Buffy—just not the Buffy you’re thinking of.

It’s kind of a miracle that a Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series ever happened. To understand why, you have to witness the show’s very humble origins, to watch the movie that started it all—the one Whedon probably wishes you wouldn’t, the one that Buffy fans generally ignore, the one that only really gets discussed today as a footnote on what it ended up improbably inspiring. It’s rare enough that a show based on a movie turns out good or even popular. But for one to grow from the soil of a forgotten, very mild box-office success with mixed-to-negative reviews, only to take on a life of its own and build a loyal fan-base and run for seven whole seasons? We’re entering miracle territory.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer poster

Before he was a god among geeks, before he knocked out one cult sensation after another and supplied the comic rapport of Earth’s mightiest heroes, Whedon was a sitcom staff writer, punching up the laugh count of Roseanne and the first Parenthood TV series. He was all of 25 years old when he sold his first screenplay: a teen-targeted curiosity about a high-school valley girl who discovers that she’s destined not to “graduate, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die,” but to fight the forces of evil. Whedon was there on set during some of the making of Buffy The Vampire Slayer; he got to watch, helplessly, as they dumbed down and lightened up his script, as Donald Sutherland rewrote his dialogue on the fly, as director Fran Rubel Kuzui took the whole enterprise in a much broader direction. The writer ended up walking off set and never returning. He insists today that the big-screen Buffy isn’t canon, even if its plot outline roughly aligns with the backstory to which the small-screen version alludes. (An approximation of Whedon’s original, unaltered screenplay exists in canonical comic-book form. It’s called The Origin.)

Kristy Swanson, then at about the peak of her fame, stars as Buffy (just Buffy; no one ever says “Summers”), a ditzy cheerleader in sunny Los Angeles. Closer in vocabulary and priorities to Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia than the more level-headed Sarah Michelle Gellar version that would arrive five years later—though that’s sort of the character arc, to be fair—Buffy soon discovers that her carefree days as a social butterfly are numbered. Turns out she’s the Slayer, the latest in a long line of chosen ones born to battle the undead. Coaching her through this monumental life change is Merrick (Donald Sutherland), the wizened Watcher who’s come to train her in the ways of vampire staking. Their big target: Lothos (perennial Hollywood villain Rutger Hauer, in what can’t be called his finest hour), a centuries-old aristocratic ghoul aiming to spread the plague of vampirism across L.A., beginning with the city’s population of dumb, horny, gullible teenagers.

As a TV show, Buffy The Vampire Slayer transcends its title: “Ignore the name,” fans would insist during the early years, while trying to coerce friends into taking a chance on a WB teen drama featuring monsters and a soap-opera alum. The movie, on the other hand, isn’t far from the glorified comedy sketch its title implies—like the later Beverly Hills Ninja, but with bloodsuckers instead of ninjas. To watch it is to gain new appreciation for the tonal balancing act Whedon achieved even during the rocky first season of the show (especially the two-part pilot, which covers a lot of narrative ground across its feature-length running time). In the movie, the horror is hokey: a mixture of stiff Victorian-era flashbacks that play like a parody of Hammer’s Dracula films and bloodless biting on the teen-vamp style of The Lost Boys. The high-school melodrama doesn’t scan much, either, because Buffy and her friends are vapid cartoons; three years before Clueless made characters out of valley-girl clichés, Buffy can’t get past the one-note “hilarity” of its logline, as though the idea of a shallow California girl stabbing vampires without breaking a nail were a comic vein it could never suck dry.

Swanson, who never entirely transitioned from sex symbol to movie star, has the impossible task of making Buffy’s overnight transformation plausible: She has to play a one-dimensional airhead for the movie’s first half, then suddenly deepen into a headstrong heroine—a bit of character development that the movie basically handles through a training montage. Some of the cast fares better. Whedon may have hated Sutherland, for ad-libbing his lines and behaving generally like a “prick” on set, but he brings a casual gravitas and twinkle of dry humor to Merrick, legitimizing the Watcher/Slayer relationship. The movie’s best performance is from Paul Reubens, who plays the heavy’s number two. Reubens, more than anyone else on screen, understands the precise balance of menace and screwball energy for which Whedon may have been aiming. If there’s one big, honest laugh in this movie—one that’s stuck with this writer for almost 25 years, even as all other aspects of the film faded from memory—it’s the actor’s exaggerated, improvised death scene. He also gets to deliver some of the movie’s purest Whedonese, as when he tells a group of vampire flunkies to “Kill him a lot.” (Shades, there, of a certain famous headstone.)

There’s fun, too, in spotting all the stars before they were famous that pop up in supporting roles and bit parts throughout Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Hey, there’s Hilary Swank, in her first movie role, as one of Buffy’s shopaholic besties! And there’s Stephen Root, three years before Newsradio, as the school principal handing out detention notice to the dead vampires sprawled out across the gym in the climax. David Arquette, Thomas Jane, and Ben Affleck all have screen time. So does future Buffy sidekick Seth Green—though his appearance as a vampire has been cut down to a wordless three seconds, his back turned to the camera.

For Buffy diehards, the movie’s chief source of interest may be the opportunity to compare and contrast. Notice, for example, how Buffy’s raised not by an understanding single mother, but a frequently absent yuppie caricature (played, briefly, by American Graffiti’s Candy Clark)? Or how Sutherland’s Watcher operates not as one part of a counsel, but as a solitary line of defense—a kind of eternal Van Helsing, reincarnating over and over again to train new Slayers, until the scourge of vampirism has been wiped clean off the planet? There’s also where the film begins, with Buffy as a popular, graduating senior. She’d be recast as a sophomore, the new girl in class, for the serialized version that hit the WB in 1997.

Still, if you squint hard enough, you can see the faint impression of what Buffy would become, years later, on its second try. There are glimmers of the show to be in the film’s leather-jacket-clad, motorcycle-riding love interest, Pike—and not just because his name resembles that of a certain fan favorite. As played by 90210 star Luke Perry, whose casting helped assure the film a green light, Pike behaves like a preemptive hybrid of future Buffy principals: a dash of Angel’s outlaw cool, a pinch of the bumbling backup provided by Xander. Whedon, too, was already playing with metaphor, a key ingredient of his hit series, by making the whole Slayer thing representative of the whole growing-up thing. “Everything you thought was crucial seems so stupid,” Buffy says at one point, acknowledging how the priorities of high school can start to seem irrelevant even before you’re out the door (and even if you’re not destined for a lifetime of monster hunting). Kuzui also hammers this idea home with a nice late moment of Buffy standing alone at the big dance, wistfully taking stock of the carefree life she‘s already outgrown.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)

A big part of early adulthood is realizing not just who you want to be, but who you don’t want to be. Whedon may have rewound the clock on his heroine’s adolescence when he brought her to television, but the rebooted Buffy very much looks like the mature version—wiser, more confident, past many of the growing pains that hobbled its cinematic incarnation. It makes you wonder if the movie needed to happen, as a kind of trial-and-error practice run, showing Whedon what Buffy didn’t have to be, what it shouldn’t be. Certainly, getting the origin story out of the way allowed Whedon to sidestep the less interesting aspects of Buffy’s characterization; Gellar never had to play the Slayer as superficial teenage royalty—she got to tackle the role post-enlightenment, lending her instant shades that Swanson had to locate too late into her 86-minute tenure. (Also, it’s possible to speculate that the show wouldn’t even exist without this particular version of the movie, which didn’t do well enough in theaters to inspire sequels, but whose success on VHS inspired interest in a television series. What if Whedon’s ideal Buffy film tanked? Or what if he felt satisfied enough by it to put the property to rest?)

What Whedon truly figured out on second pass, though, is something that’s informed his work ever since: Buffy is really just the rock-solid center of Buffy. The key to the show’s enduring power is the world of characters he’d create around her—the bickering, bantering Scooby family, and the big personalities he’d plant all over Sunnydale, as allies, villains, and foils. Whedon’s greatest gift as an artist may be his affinity for group dynamics, which he’d continued to put to good use as the creator of other ensemble series (Firefly, Dollhouse), the author of team-based comic books (Astonishing X-Men, Runaways), and the director of two superhero melee blockbusters (The Avengers and its sequel) that find comedy and drama in the collision of personalities. On the big screen, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was exactly what it sounded like: a dopey comedy about a girl named Buffy who kills vampires. It was when it moved to TV that it became something deeper, something richer, something more: Buffy The Vampire Slayer And Friends. The “And Friends” is silent.