The ultimate guide to Joss Whedon, entitled Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion: The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More, was released May 1. Read an excerpt now!

The almost 500-page-long book is a collection of essays on all aspects of Joss Whedon’s work (including the recently premiered The Avengers), and features contributions by Jane Espenson and Tim Minear. Hypable has received a copy of this book, and you can expect a full review soon.

For now, read the excerpt released by Movies.com, from one of the essays talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

Joss Whedon 101: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (The Movie)

Laura Berger

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 (“Buffy”).

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, its affiliation with the WB, a teen-oriented network, the fact that it is science fiction and fantasy… etc.). In any case, introductions to Buffy are met with less resistance when the person in question hasn’t seen the film.

Many hardcore fans of the show do not rewatch the movie often—or at all. 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 still can’t summarize 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—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 of the project itself. The film doesn’t bask in its silliness (except for one 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 and wears scunchies (unironically!); 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. We’re also supposed to believe that Buffy’s popular friends find Luke Perry’s character (Pike) unappealing and inappropriate boyfriend material for Buffy (as if superficial teenage girls would reject Luke Perry—Luke Perry in the ‘90s with a leather jacket, no less).

Donald Sutherland’s performance as Buffy’s Watcher Merrick is deeply unsettling; he seems less like a mentor and more like a predator. When Merrick first approaches Buffy and tells her that she is the Slayer and demands that she come with him to a graveyard, Buffy accuses him of being “a skanky old [man] who attacks little girls and stuff.” Merrick never loses the skanky old man aura. There is nothing paternal about Sutherland’s portrayal, and he seems ready to open his trench coat at any moment. Skanky indeed.

The film is sort of like an embarrassing picture from your adolescence that you want to hide. Burning it would be bad luck and a mite too dramatic. The portrait means something, in its own painfully awkward way. But there are traces—however faint—of what Buffy would go on to become: a rare example of a strong female character, an iconic hero. The movie is Buffy in braces. Buffy as raw cookie dough.

Works Cited

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui. Perf. Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, and Luke Perry. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992).” Rotten Tomatoes Web. 20 Oct. 2011.

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