So my experience was that I saw this movie, then years later got into and devoured the show, and then always meant to go back and watch the movie, which I hadn't done til now. It was always on my list, but finally a friend brought it over for movie night--it came out when he was five, and he has watched it innumerable times since. And it turned out to be better than I had remembered, and also fascinating in regards to the show it spawned.
So the loose story is that Joss Whedon wrote this, but it was changed so much and other things added that he eventually walked away from the production and never came back. This kind of tells the story of what happened to Buffy that caused her to have to move to Sunnydale in the first episode of the series, except that we're supposed to understand that what we're seeing here is not at all the the story or tone that Whedon intended.
We open with a prologue during "the dark ages" that show Donald Sutherland and Kristy Swanson as earlier incarnations of themselves, only it looks like the production spent at most twelve dollars on costumes and sets combined. Now, another thing about this movie is that this is from the period where Donald Sutherland couldn't get any serious roles, and was reduced to doing crap, and apparently was so disdainful of this whole project, and made himself so insufferable to work with, that Whedon does not have a single kind word to say about him to this day. So a whole source of amusement can be had in watching Sutherland go through certain motions (and in several whole sequences you can see he is literally just moving into poses required by the script) and know that he is feeling deep mortification that his career has come to this. Of course, if he had been able to see the intention and cleverness of the concept, he wouldn't have had to be ashamed. Although, there is no indication that anyone involved here was able to see the cleverness of the concept.
Anyway, so that prologue seems to accomplish the same thing as the "every generation, a Slayer is born" opening to the series, and it's dubious as to whether we need to know that right up front. We then join Buffy and friends in L.A. at the mall, while a title tells us this is "The Lite Ages," which is apparently supposed to be funny. One of those friends is Hilary Swank in her first film, and watching her try to do obnoxious valley girl with her giant teeth is one of the key delights of re watching this. Also on hand is Luke Perry as Pike and his best friend, David Arquette as Benny. They have the clique of girls, and the girls hate them. To skip ahead, there is a moment at the mall in which Benny comes at Buffy with his hot dog held as though it is his penis. We see her reach for a knife, we see Swank react, and then we see the hot dog split lengthwise, and have Benny say "She wasted my dog." I thought it was interesting that we could not actually SEE Buffy waste Benny's dog, as that would apparently be too shocking. In here we're gently starting to introduce the idea of vampires.
So it's interesting to see how, at the time, they really didn't have much idea what to do with material like this. Now, of course, we wouldn't be surprised by any of it, but then, you could see them trying delicately to introduce vampires in a way that wouldn't be too bizarre. One of the things I really like about this movie is that, because Buffy is going to come into power later in the film, they can have her be a bit more of a bimbo than she ever was in the series. Still, the movie is uncomfortable really criticizing the girls because that wouldn't be feminist, would it? And Kristy Swanson also has a bit of trouble, in addition to her trouble with acting in general, with letting herself come off as a total vacuous bimbo without letting us know that she's in on the joke.
SPOILERS > > >
Anyway, we get to see Buffy's introduction to Merrick, that's Sutherland, who first informs her that she is the Slayer. This whole upcoming sequence was redone at the climax of season two, with Sarah Michelle Gellar, but it's good to see it get the full-on treatment here and, maybe I'm totally inured by the series, but I found parts of it a bit moving. He tells her there are vampires, and he needs her to come with him to the graveyard. It's a bit ridiculous that she goes with him at all, but that's the magic of the movies. They hang out there and make small talk, scenes that could have been comic gold if Swanson was ready to go full-on bimbo, and finally two vampires attack, which Buffy slays handily. Her realization that vampires are real and that she acted with preternatural skill are given short shrift because this movie is uncomfortable any time we step away from teen comedy. Next day, Buffy avoids Merrick, but he shows up and whips a knife at her head, which she easily catches. Another scene that could have been great, but alas, is only serviceable.
Meanwhile Benny, who has been turned into a vampire, appears floating outside Pike's second story window, asking to be let in. This is another classic Whedon scene that this movie doesn't quite know what to do with, as it can't let itself acknowledge the horror of seeing one's best friend now turned into this creepy beast. It IS pretty horrifying, but Pike doesn't react with much more than a "woah, that's weird," and the movie just lets the truly disturbing content hang there, unacknowledged. Buffy is having strange dreams, including one set in some historical village, which the movie launches into without any transition, so all of a sudden you're just seeing this whole torchlit village and it comes off as comic. This is to introduce Rutger Hauer as the big bad vampire, along with Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman), here in a bit of stunt casting, as he had already committed his public indiscretion by that time. Buffy later has a dream that I found to be quite effective (and also rather disturbing) in which she climbs right up in Hauer's lap and goes to sleep.
Soon we're having a training montage and certain images--Buffy doing flips across the room, Buffy bashing at a punching bag--made it intact into the series. There is a scene in which Buffy is called into the principal's office and kills a fly with a push pin... and the fly is clearly a plastic number akin to something that might come out of a supermarket vending machine. Really--they couldn't get a FLY? We also have an intriguing but uncomfortable idea that was dropped from the series, which is that Buffy gets menstral cramps when vampires are near. It's an interesting idea, and one that shows Whedon giving a lot (perhaps too much) of thought to every aspect of his heroine's existence, which he sees as explicitly tied into femininity and women's power. Still, it never quite works, and it was a good idea to drop from the series. Anyway, soon Buffy rescues Pike, and lets him in on her secret, a scene that ends with him saying "I know what it's like." Ummm, you do? You also are forced to give up your normal existence in order to fight an endless battle against the undead, are you?
Back at school, Buffy takes down a jock who grabs her ass, then we have a pretty scary (if the movie was ready to go there) scene of a vampire on the basketball court, during which we see Ben Affleck in a tiny role. Soon Buffy meets Hauer, and Merrick is killed, although the movie doesn't have much time or interest to go into the implications of this. Soon she's getting attitude from Swank and her friends, and you'll notice now that Buffy changes first into a masculine plaid shirt, then soon into combat boots. My friend and I were also a bit surprised to see that the valley girls are uniformly clad in these floral prints--we're they REALLY that popular among glamor girls in the early 90s? A highlight of this is Swank's daisy-themed ensemble with matching earrings. Pike's appearance also changes as suddenly with his hair is slicked back in a James Dean-esque look.
From here it's not long til the big dance, which once again gives us cause to reflect on the incredible influence of Carrie. Soon vampires invade, and it turns into ye olde chaotic dance catastrophe, and if you look carefully when Buffy goes outside to fight a bunch of vampires out there, you can see Seth Green for three seconds. She saved the day, kills Hauer and Reubens, and rides off with Pike. In the original script she actually burns down the entire gym with the vampires inside, which is referenced in the first episode of the show, but that was seen as a bit too heavy for this light, funny, meaningless teen film.
< < < SPOILERS END
So basically this is only interesting if you went on to watch the show, in which case it is VERY interesting. What the show was able to do is demonstrate how this material could be serious, and once you accept that, you see all the interesting aspects of casting high school as a place of horror, and the feminist idea that Buffy being a "bimbo" does not limit her ability to be a strong, powerful woman. It's also interesting to see how the idea of mixing serious issues with valley girl lightness and comedy was enough to make brains short-circuit back then, as it was simply considered to be conceptually impossible. And finally it's interesting to see the origins of this character and some of her earliest experiences, even in bastardized form.
If you did not go on to watch the show, however, this is going to come off as a strange, uneven and unfunny. Which should be your hint that you need to watch the show.
If you're a big fan of the show. If not, well, how's your tolerance for silly teen comedy?