The 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s seminal TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave its legions of fans a moment to reflect, to look at that gorgeous EW photo spread, and to reexamine what about that show was ahead of its time, and what is best left to the past. This week marks the OTHER Buffy anniversary, the one that almost no one will speak about, and will likely go unmarked due to our collective shame and dislike of the imperfect harbinger of the Chosen One.
But 25th anniversary of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, and Rutger Hauer, has come and gone to little fanfare. And I think it deserved a little.
This film isn’t even close to as beloved as the series of the same name. We’ve all heard the tale before: Joss Whedon lost control of it and didn’t get the movie he intended to make. With a 35% rating on the Tomatometer and the fandom’s standing agreement to pretend it never happened, this Buffy is the orphaned child of a franchise that can’t afford to be embarrassed. (Let’s face it: Angel was a less than perfect spinoff.) So what did this Buffy get so wrong?
Kristy Swanson is Buffy’s backstory: the Hemery High cheerleader and barbed bubblehead who found out too late in life that she was born to be a slayer. Trained by the ill-starred watcher called Merrick, she comes to accept her destiny through a training montage and a few wooden scenes. The sets are cheesier than a quesadilla grilled in Clem’s chestfolds. The muddled plot makes you wonder if this is all a Restless dream sequence. The dopey dialog makes you wish the Gentlemen would come to town and strike everyone dumb. The gags range from precious bits of try-hard early Buffyspeak (“Get out of my facial!”) to gag-me-with-a-stake valley girl lines (“I didn’t even break a nail!”).
However, viewed in the correct light, BTVS the film has the odd shine of Spike’s chunky skull engagement ring. It’s camp! It posits an insane reality where vampirism doesn’t disqualify one from high school athletics and the principal is so out of touch that he lays detention slips down on cooling corpses. Cornball moments abound: Buffy pulls on a boy’s leather jacket over a white dress for her final boss fight. Luke Perry coincidentally manages to ride in on a motorcycle to lend a hand. The cheerleaders do the funky chicken and ask how loose is your goose, rather than just lining up for the jiggle counter. The vampires are a gang of 80s mall goths with their back pockets filled with terrible one-liners to match their raggedy eyeliner. They moan and groan and thrash around when staked, instead of giving us a biblical dust to dust death. This Buffy isn’t trying to say anything new about heroes or feminism or life and death; it’s just campy, screwball fun.
There’s too often a lack of humor to our heroines. We insist that they be perfect: smart, sexy, and combat-ready. Diana Prince is not allowed to pop gum or make malapropisms. Natasha Romanoff gets to be witty and world-weary, but never silly. For the most part, we draw this line. Funny women stand on one side, and they have to be attractive but they don’t have to be crazy hot. On the other side are the hot superstars, and they are not allowed to be funny. Never gross. Never stupid. Certainly never camp. We saddle them with the entirety of our cause and crucify them if they even appear to betray us. This is the cardinal sin of the Buffy movie. Kristy Swanson is hot, she’s our hero, and she is really and truly a dumb, gum-popping Valley Girl who wraps her legs around her boyfriend to say hello. She still kicks ass, risks her life, stakes vampires and saves the day. When’s the last time you saw a female lead like that?
There are good moments for the story of the slayer that couldn’t be salvaged from this wreck of a film. Buffy’s sense of duty and the nearness of vampires manifests as menstrual cramps, like Bilbo’s sword glowing when orcs are near. How did that get cut from the mythos? Kristy Swanson, despite a character sheet that clearly instructed her to be a dumb blonde in a push-up bra, has some really believable moments as the Slayer. Duty finds her clear-eyed, with her jaw set. She learns from Merrick and understands that people will die if she doesn’t act decisively. She has the same Prophecy Girl dreams that Sarah Michelle Gellar would suffer five years later, but the former dreams of the historical line of Slayers, seeing herself in their place. What happened to that? Imagine if TV Buffy had reached the Avatar state, with access to the compound memories of Nikki Wood and Xin Rong and Sineya. Kristy Swanson’s Buffy was her own kind of Slayer, one in the line, even if we do her no honors.
Into every generation a Slayer is born. For millennials, that Slayer was Sarah Michelle Gellar, TV’s darkened darling, escapee of the underworld, Class Protector of Sunnydale High’s class of 1999. For Xers, that Slayer was Kristy Swanson. She was nobody’s revolutionary. She didn’t have a redheaded Jewish lesbian witch to help her save the world. She won no prizes at prom. She is remembered mostly as a joke, a false start, and a dumb blonde.
They were both our Buffy. She was cool. She was camp. She saved the world. A lot.