The 1997 television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is often cited as an “unlikely” critical darling. The title didn’t exactly inspire confidence, nor did the fact that the cast was led by former soap star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Perhaps most damning was the show’s affiliation with a poorly received film released five years prior—a film of the same name and premise.
The earliest incarnation of Buffy is something that many fans would like to forget; indeed, even Joss Whedon, screenwriter of the film and creator behind the series, is adamant about the fact that the film should not be considered part of the Buffy canon. Whedon has (repeatedly and publicly) voiced his disappointment with the film, which was not representative of his original screenplay. Viewers agree. The film has a score of 32 percent at Rotten Tomatoes; 11 “fresh” reviews are eclipsed by the 23 “rotten” ones.
For most fans of the show, the movie is embarrassing. Diehard fans of the series have more success convincing people who haven’t seen the movie to watch the show because they don’t have preconceived notions (except the silly title, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s status as a former teen star, the fact that it is science fiction and fantasy… etc.). Introductions to Buffy are met with less resistance when the person in question hasn’t seen the film.
Many fans who often rewatch the series often do not rewatch the movie for years. These same fans cringe whenever it’s mentioned, but interestingly, the details of the film are unfamiliar to them. They unceasingly criticize the film, but when they do watch it, they discover they couldn’t have summarized details of the storylines or comment on the characters. Merrick, Pike, Lothos—the characters that comprise the movie’s cast of characters are decidedly less memorable than the indelible Giles, Spike, and Angel.
The film begins with a flashback to Europe sometime in “The Dark Ages” (characterization is not the only area in which the film lacks specificity). A voiceover sets the stage: “Since the dawn of time, the vampires have walked among us, killing, feeding. The only one with the strength or skill to stop their heinous evil is the Slayer. She who bears the birthmark, the mark of the coven.” The slayer is trained by the Watcher, and when one slayer dies, the next is chosen. We are then introduced to Buffy, a blonde high school student, a cheerleader by day who will soon become—albeit reluctantly—a vampire slayer by night. The fate of the world rests on Buffy’s (Kristy Swanson) shoulders. She’s passionate about shopping and gossiping and seems like an entirely unlikely candidate for superpowers.
The movie chronicles Buffy’s transformation from an unlikeable airhead into a powerful hero. By the film’s conclusion, we are cheering for Buffy; that being said, there is nothing remarkable about her besides her birthright. We want her to succeed, but we don’t feel particularly connected to her. Swanson’s Buffy lacks Sarah Michelle Gellar’s vulnerability and seriousness—or her depth. Gellar is an anchor in the series; whether she’s facing witches, prom dogs, or ghosts, she manages to keep the show grounded. Imprisoned by her calling and negotiating the warzones of adolescence and the Hellmouth, Gellar’s Buffy is a slayer and a person, whereas Swanson comes across as somewhat of a caricature.
This seems less the fault of Swanson than the project itself. The film doesn’t bask in its silliness (except for a memorably amusing death scene) or dare to take its subject matter seriously, so it’s rarely funny or moving. It lacks any semblance of conviction; it doesn’t know what it is or even what it’s striving to be. There is a main villain—Lothos—but we don’t really know what he wants (other than to kill Buffy).
Some of the movie is unintentionally hilarious. Hilary Swank makes her first appearance on film as Buffy’s frenemy Kimberly. Swank is clad in cut-off vests that resemble wallpaper patterns and she wears scunchies; nothing in her performance suggests that she would go on to become a two-time Oscar winner. David Arquette “acts” as an immature and asinine sidekick, and Luke Perry plays a teenager—not at all convincingly. Perry was in his 30s when the film was released…