Buffy movie revisited + the canon version of Buffy’s origins in „The Origin“
Today is the 20 year anniversary of the release of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer
movie. (Note: Well, it was when I started writing this, when I finally get to post this, it will still be 31st July in the Western hemisphere, so it still counts...
) Perfect time to revisit the way it all started.
I remember seeing the movie on TV a few years before I started watching the show, and finding it a mildly funny but average, not very good and mostly ordinary teen comedy that tried to poke fun at vampire movies. I was always struck by how different the show is to the movie. Rewatching it now, after a long time, my impressions are the same, only more negative, because I can now see how much potential it wasted. This becomes especially obvious when you compare it Joss Whedon’s original script
, which is available online, and which I read last week for the first time. A much better movie could have been made from this, and one that would have been a lot more in the spirit with the TV show. On the other hand, if the movie had matched Joss’ intentions, maybe he wouldn’t have felt compelled to take his idea to the small screen... So maybe it’s better it worked out this way.
The movie was declared not canon by Joss, so nothing from it actually has any bearing on the show and the comics continuity, but Joss has never filmed another version of Buffy’s origin story.
I will also revisit the only canon version of Buffy’s origins is the 1999 Dark Horse comic The Origin
, which gives a more faithful adaptation of Joss’ original script, much closer to the spirit of the show, and attempts to reconcile the story with the TV show continuity (including scenes based on the flashbacks from the show), since there are quite a few discontinuities between Joss’s script and the movie on one side, and the show on the other. Joss has said this
about this comic:
"The origin comic, though I have issues with it, CAN pretty much be accepted as canonical. They did a cool job of combining the movie script (the SCRIPT) with the series, that was nice, and using the series Merrick and not a certain OTHER thespian who shall remain hated."
First off, a reminder if you don’t remember, here’s a synopsis
: Buffy starts off as a cheerleader in Hemery High school in LA, one of the vapid, shallow valley girls. She hangs out with 3 equally shallow friends (bitchy Kimberly – played by Hilary Swank, particularly airheaded Jennifer, and another girl called Nicole who doesn’t get fleshed out much), a bit more bookish Cassandra (who later becomes one of the vampires’ victims) and has a shallow, vapid and casually sexist jock boyfriend Jeffrey (who hangs out with a blatantly sexist jerk, Andy). They have a couple of somewhat antagonistic encounters with Pike and his friend Benny, who are supposed to be lower class/poor punks types, but it’s pretty clear from the start that a meet-cute romance is being set up between Buffy and Pike. (I like the sound of that.) Meanwhile, a really old and powerful vampire (who’s referred to in the script by other characters as a Vampire King), Lothos, has arrived in LA with his minions, and they are starting to turn the locals – mostly high school students – while Lothos wants to kill another Slayer. Yes, Lothos is supposed to have killed several Slayers at least – which, at the time, might not have sounded like such a feat, but after having seen the show where Slayers were made to look almost as superwomen and where killing two Slayers is a huge feat, is almost incredible. Someone else who’s arrived in LA is Merrick, a Watcher, who’s looking for the new Slayer. When he first tells her she’s the Chosen One, Buffy is at first incredulous, as you’d expect, but he manages to quickly convince her, since he knows about her Slayer dreams. She’s reluctant to accept her new role, but she manages to kill her first two vampires the night when Merrick first takes her to the graveyard to patrol. Gradually, she becomes more and more involved with slaying and in the process alienates her friends and boyfriend, but also gains new friend/love interest/sidekick in Pike, who’s meanwhile learned about vampires being real because his best friend got turned into one. After Merrick’s tragic death, Buffy has a crisis and almost decides to quit and go to the school dance instead and be just a regular girl, which Pike disagrees with. At the dance, where Buffy is shunned by her friends and dumped by her boyfriend (or rather, learns that he’s already left her a break-up message on her answering machine) but gets to dance with Pike who’s decided to show up – but then the vampires attack school during the dance. Buffy kills a bunch of vampires, with the help of Pike and a few other students, fights with the arrogant Lothos and kills him. In the end, Buffy has grown way past her old friends and old lifestyle.
I’ve noticed that Joss recycled some of his original ideas for Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest:
the way Buffy kills Amilyn, Lothos' main henchman, in the script (but not in the movie nor in The Origin
), is very similar to the trick she plays on Luke in The Harvest.
As far as the things that did make it to the movie go: there are also similarities such as Pike/Xander having to kill his best friend who's become a vampire; some of the original arguments between Buffy and Giles are a bit like those between Buffy and Merrick; Gary Murray the school counselor is a proto-Flutie; and Lothos is a bit like a mix between the Master and a non-ironic version of Dracula, with a bit of Luke's early rhetoric. We have vampires attacking the school on a big night again in School Hard
I can’t remember, did anyone on the show ever use a pencil to stake a vampire? This is how Buffy finally manages to surprise and kill Lothos in the script version of their confrontation, after he’s cornered her in the school corridor; script direction says that there’s almost something like respect in his eyes as he’s turning to dust (and Lothos, up to that point, has been very contemptuous and dismissive of Buffy and other Slayers).
Differences between the movie and Joss’ original script
Joss Whedon wrote the original version of the script for Buffy when he was 25. According to this old article (linked today on Whedonesque – thanks, Whedonesque!), „The project began gathering steam last fall, when producer Rosenman "flipped over this weirdly funny script by a 25-year-old with red hair flowing down to his ass.“ “ (See evidence
of the latter.)
The same article describes the Buffy movie as a mix between Wayne’s World
and Beverly Hills 90210.
Well, that’s true - but only if you take out Heathers
The script is well worth reading – it’s really not cheesy and campy the way the movie is, and it’s not a comedy: it’s much darker and it’s a horror/action teen drama with some humor in it. In other words, similar to the show. However, the people who made the movie obviously didn’t take the story seriously at all and figured it had to be a broad cheesy teenage comedy. You can see it as soon as the open narration about the Slayers starts – similar to the one in first 2 seasons of the show – delivered in a mocking, campy voice, while we see a brief scene of Kristy Swanson with a silly expression, in what is supposed to be one of her dreams about past Slayers. There are a lot of changes between this version of the script and what finally got filmed. But even when there were no changes in the dialogue – and in the majority of the scenes, they kept the original dialogue– the directorial choices, acting, music, choreography, even hairstyling and costumes, made all the difference.
Kristy Swanson isn't bad until you compare her to Sarah Michelle Gellar, she has no spunk and charisma and badassery that SMG so easily instills into the character. Swanson is physically much bigger, but tiny SMG is a much bigger presence in every other way. Luke Perry (Pike) is just being Luke Perry, i.e. has the same dull expression throughout. The worst of all is Donald Sutherland (Buffy’s first Watcher, Merrick), who looks bored throughout the movie, probably waiting to finish shooting the dumb teen movie and collect his paycheck – he even looks bored in his death scene!
The music is dreadful – the songs are all very mainstream, in a bad way (unlike the much more interesting choices on the show); the score is more 80s than 90s, and occasionally sounds like elevator music - especially in above mentioned Merrick’s death scene.
The movie removed almost everything that was even a little bit darker and more serious. Gone are the opening scenes from the script, showing some of the Slayers from the previous centuries, including the scenes of Lothos killing Slayers. Instead of being really scary, the vampires in the movie are just ridiculous. Lothos’ henchmen Amilyn, in particular, is quite scary in the script, but a complete joke and an OTT comedy character in the movie – he even gets a comedy protracted death that goes on and on. Script!Lothos is a truly intimidating figure (and a vampire who’s supposed to have killed several Slayers has to be!), but in the movie, despite being played by Rutger Hauer, a guy who knows how to be scary, even he is made into a bit of a joke. In one of the many eyeroll-worthy cheesy moments that the director/script doctors/whoever thought was a good idea to add, Lothos plays a violin to hypnotize Buffy (?!) and in another, he dies saying „Oops“.
But the worst of all is Buffy’s fight with the vampires outside the gym, which could have been great (and is in the comic), and which is described like this in the script:
Buffy is defending herself in an astounding blur of gymnastics
and martial arts. Leaping, throwing kicks, punches, and the
odd stake, she manages to scatter them enough to make a run for it.
...and in the movie, it looks like this: Kristy Swanson goes out of the gym, makes several somersaults for no reason at all and comes up against one of the vampires, and all the vampires stand in a circle and attack her one by one, waiting until she’s finished with the previous ones, like in the awful old martial arts movies.
She also starts her fight with Lothos by making a few somersaults for absolutely no reason.
The Buffy's and Merrick's relationship far less antagonistic in the movie – he shows that he’s grown fond of her by telling her she is „truly exceptional“ while in the script (and in the comic) he criticizes her for being „vacuous“ and for not paying attention, lectures her that being a Slayer is not just about super-strength and argues with her, asking her if she thinks she’s special – he buried five girls who trained much harder than she did. They certainly form a bond, but they do it in the typically Whedonesque snarky manner (a bit like Buffy/Giles in season 1). One of the best moments (which, fortunately, made it to the comic) is when Merrick realizes that Buffy is not paying attention to his lecture about vampires and is looking into her notebook instead, and says „I have huge antlers growing out of my buttocks“, confirming that Buffy isn’t really listening , and then hurls a stake right through Buffy’s notebook. And in very Jossian fashion, those two still come to really care about each other. In the script (and the comic), he gives his life largely to protect her, and Buffy's attempt to have a eulogy on her own after his death is really poignant:
Ummm, our Father, Who art in Heaven,
duhmm... hallowed be Thy name.
Uhh, kingdom come, daily break, I
don't know. I don't even know if
you're religious. You probably
are. But you're dead, you know.
You're just totally dead. and...
She sits heavily on his grave.
... and I don't know what to do.
You were the one who... I don't
know if the training was over. I
don't even know if I passed. You're
so stupid! How could you be so
stupid? What am I supposed to do
without you? You son of a bitch!
She stops, looks down for a moment.
None of that is in the movie.
Other big changes include:
- Merrick’s death: in the movie, Lothos kills him because Buffy was too much in „thrall“ to react, and then dies in her arms. In the script, Buffy wasn’t even there until the end (and she never seems in much of a danger of being hypnotized by Lothos), as she was busy killing vampires in another place, and Merrick kills himself with a gun to prevent Lothos from turning him and using him against Buffy. (Although maybe this isn’t explained as much as it is in the comic.)
- The movie removes the dark moment when a bunch of students, including Buffy’s (ex) friend Kimberly, decide to practically throw Buffy to the vampires to save their own skin: since the vampires (many of them formerly students who were turned) were outside yelling „We want Buffy“, the students yell in panic that she should go out so the vampires could have her and leave them alone. What they didn’t realize is that the vampires are going to attack the gym anyway, breaking the windows. In the script, after the fight is over, Buffy silently walks away from the students who wanted to sacrifice her (with the exception of Pike, who was fiercely on her side, and a few others.)
- The script ends with: a news report about the attack (described as an attack of a gang of „crack-crazed gunmen“) that had a death toll of 12; followed by a scene showing Buffy’s ex-friends and ex-boyfriend gossiping about her and how „crazy“ she’s become; and a scene with Buffy and Pike going to an old castle – presumably to look for some old vampire to slay. The movie, on the other hand, ends with a protracted news report – which completely lacks the mention of any casualties, are we supposed to think that no students died? – followed by a bunch of stupid jokes (and then some more of Amilyn’s protracted death scene).
In their thorough mainstreaming of the script, they also removed pretty much everything that could have been consider somewhat edgy:
- Every single reference to teen sex (including a scene in which Buffy, while looking for vampires, finds her ex-boyfriend Jeffrey, who’s just dumped her, and his new date Jennifer, Buffy’s ex-friend, clumsily having sex in his ca);
- A few instances of bad language (but OK, that was to be expected);
- Coach’s speech before the game that happens to contain a casual reference to homosexuality („So I don't care about your minds. Maybe you're tired. Maybe you're worried about your grades. Maybe you dog just died or you've suddenly found that you're attracted to other men. I don't care!”
- Pike’s off-hand mention/joke that his guidance counselor mentioned prison as the possible future for him
- Pike and his friend Benny’s punk style looks. In the script, Pike is described as having spiked hair, a taste for long coats and black, and wearing Doc Martens, while his friend Benny has a shaved head, suspenders and also Doc Martens. In the movie, they are... Luke Perry and David Arquette looking like Luke Perry and David Arquette usually do, and not really visibly different than Buffy's boyfriend Jeffrey and the other jock guys. (Joss seems to like introducing punk-ish looking characters from time to time: Spike, Satsu and Simone in the comics.)
One of the small changes that particularly pissed me off is how they filmed the scene near the beginning of the movie which we first see Buffy kissing her boyfriend Jeffrey, and his friend Andy acts like a complete sexist ass and asks „Jeffrey, dude, can I borrow her?“ In the script – and the comic – she just normally comes up to Jeffrey and they kiss, while Andy and Jeffrey’s other friends and Buffy’s friends are standing near by. In the movie, she runs and leans into Jeffrey’s car to kiss him – he’s in the driving seat – not bothered that her butt is practically lying in Andy’s lap (since he’s in the front seat). I guess they just couldn’t show a high school boy being blatantly sexist without giving the audience the opportunity to say „Heh, it’s the bimbo’s fault for hanging her ass in front of his nose“?!
So, as we’ve established, the movie sucks big time. Nothing I haven’t known for years. The only difference is that, having read the script, I can vouch it really wasn’t Joss’ fault.