I’ll Always Love the Original Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The magnetically campy film was written by Joss Whedon but directed by a woman. Thank goodness.
“All I want to do is graduate from high school, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die.” That line, from the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, may have been spoken by a teenager, but they were the words of a child. That’s why it stood out to me as a prepubescent girl—before I got my period, before I got existential, before I stopped caring about vampires (if I ever did). The line captured the glib effervescence of a bubblegum B-movie in which a cheerleader discovers her destiny as an assassin. Of monsters.
Buffy arrived right before it became cool for teenagers to brood about real things like depression and the cost of Doc Martens. But something about this particular movie was bewitching to a tweeny bopper with an alternative undertow. It had gloss and edge—but more gloss than edge. This was a pre-Clueless, Skittles-tinted ode to California ditz; as the screenwriter Joss Whedon wrote of his heroine, played by Kristy Swanson, “She is blonde (in nature as in name).” But she wouldn’t hesitate to slash your hot dog in two if you crossed her. When a slayer trainer named Merrick (played by a laughably staid Donald Sutherland) informs her of her vampire-slaying birthright, she misses nary a beat as she sports neon spandex to learn to fight, trading in her jock boyfriend for a biker (Beverly Hills, 90210’s Luke Perry) and her miniskirts and heels for plaid and boots. The result was an unfussy pre–Spice Girls girl-power fantasy for a 12-year-old kid.
I still remember my shock at seeing Dylan McKay—still on his hog, still the outsider love interest, but without his big hair and clean shave. I remember copying Buffy’s costumes—brightly colored shirts over tank tops, big jeans with small hoodies—and endlessly playing the soundtrack’s poppy beats: Susanna Hoffs, Matthew Sweet, Toad the Wet Sprocket. For me, the film was so formative that to this day I still use expressions such as “unwashed masses” and “chill lozenges.” The doofy cheerleading chant “How funky is your chicken? How loose is your goose?” still occasionally bubbles up when I shower.
I don’t know who changed the line—the one about graduating, traveling to Europe, and dying. But in Whedon’s original script, the marriage wasn’t to Christian Slater; it was to Charlie Sheen. That small difference perfectly encapsulates the tonal disconnect between Fran Rubel Kuzui, who directed Buffy, and Whedon, who went on to create the series that would eclipse it. Sheen was older and known for darker, more mature roles in films such as Platoon and Wall Street. There was no real joke there. As Angela Chase, the angsty teen protagonist of My So-Called Life who inspired Whedon’s show, would say, “It was too actual.” Slater was Heathers dark. Cute dark. Satire dark. But that wasn’t quite what Whedon had in mind.
The Buffy movie exists because Whedon wanted to be a filmmaker; he wrote the script for himself to direct. But none of the major studios wanted to finance the project, which mixed action, comedy, and seriously nerdy vampire lore. “Some plague we’re having, huh?” says a medieval knight on the first page in an early iteration of “Buffy speak”—the self-aware, pop-culture-laden, Valley Girl–esque dialect that dazzled the film’s producer, Howard Rosenman. Yet, as Rosenman says in the documentary Backstory: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “mixing genres in Hollywood is, like, a no-no.” He ended up securing financing through Kuzui Enterprises, an independent film company founded by the husband-and-wife team Kaz and Fran Rubel Kuzui. And when Rosenman couldn’t find an experienced director, he went to them too. Fran Kuzui was a “pop-culture sponge,” Rosenman told the Los Angeles Times, and had directed the 1988 indie film Tokyo Pop—about an American singer’s 15 minutes of fame in Japan. Kuzui’s response to Buffy? “It’s so stupid, I’ll do it!”
According to the L.A. Times, the intention was to make a “small, quirky independent film”—until Perry came along. The melancholic heartthrob was desperate to show his range, and the script’s goofiness drew him to the role of Pike, whom he dubbed the film’s “damsel in distress.” With an A-list star in the bag, so was 20th Century Fox—and Buffy went from unassuming indie to $9 million studio picture. The catch? Kuzui had four months to turn it around.
Buffy would come out in the summer of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns, the summer of A League of Their Own, Single White Female, and Sister Act. It was 1992, and films by and about women were on the up. Whedon may have been moved by his own high-school feelings of irrelevance to write a script about a teenage superhero, but the character outgrew her creator. “This is a story about a girl—and I think it’s very important that it’s a girl—finding out how powerful she really is,” Kuzui told the L.A. Times. That made finding the right lead all the more important. A fan of martial-arts movies, Kuzui wanted a slayer first and foremost. Swanson had a background in John Hughes movies (Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), but she showed up to the audition chewing gum in a leather jacket, looking like she could kick some ass. Kuzui coaxed out her humor, and the martial artist James Lew trained her. The set was fairly casual; shots could be decided on the day of, and the actors were expected to create their own characters. No one had time for Ben Affleck—who has a cameo as a basketball player—inquiring about his character’s motivation.
While Kuzui was wrangling a tight budget and a tighter schedule, Whedon was losing it. “I thought they were fucking up and I thought they should have filmed some of the things I wrote,” he told IGN years later. “I thought that they should have let me into the process.” Yet, if you look at the original Buffy script, it isn’t that different from the director’s cut. Much of the dialogue is untouched, although Kuzui makes the vampire mythology less elaborate, the heroine’s empowerment less spelled out. (“You’re changing,” Merrick says in Whedon’s script. “You’re becoming something extraordinarily powerful.”) Kuzui dropped Whedon’s self-serious tone—he referenced Michelangelo’s Pietà, for God’s sake—and rigorous undead world building. The director characterized her take as “lighter and funnier and less menacing” (even Fox wanted Buffy to be scarier, but Kuzui wanted to keep it appropriate for, you know, 12-year-old girls).
The film’s high-water mark can be found in Paul Reubens’s performance as the vampire-king acolyte, Amilyn. At the time, the Pee-wee’s Playhouse star had an icky rep, having recently been arrested for masturbating in a porn theater. But Kuzui knew the actor was a pop phenomenon—“Pee-wee Herman is right up there with Mickey Mouse as far as I’m concerned,” she told the L.A. Times. Taking over the role from Joan Chen (who’d dropped out), Reubens turned Amilyn into an effeminate hair-metal-styled lackey, improvising a ridiculously long death scene to tonal perfection. It was magnetic camp—just like the movie at its best.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer grossed just $14 million at the box office—an “enormous disappointment,” Kuzui told Backstory. She declined my interview request for this piece and hasn’t spoken about the film in years, although she and her husband still have a stake in the franchise that followed and are credited as executive producers on the series and other spin-offs. What else is there to say? In 1997, Whedon premiered his Buffy series on The WB and essentially wiped the film from the collective memory.
By that point, I had turned 17, and even though the show was more serious than the movie, even though its universe was cleverer and more cohesive, even though the silent episode “Hush” was probably one of the best things on television at the time it aired, Buffy was still a vampire show—to me, it was just kids’ play. My adolescence adhered to a kind of Gen-X aimlessness, to indie films with lots of character and very little plot. Whedon’s show seemed more like the kind of thing Reality Bites would make fun of—a juvenile, overly earnest studio product. While I wouldn’t have clocked that at 12, I definitely did at 17. Whedon now not only played as childish, but he also played as a childish sellout.
Perhaps in part because of this hardened zeitgeist, Whedon displayed a not-so-subtle arrogance about his show. He admitted that he’d pitched the Buffy series as a cross between The X-Files and, depending on the executives in the room, either My So-Called Life or Beverly Hills, 90210: “If they seemed like empty suits, I’d go with 90210.” He was open about his isolation in school and Buffy being a response to that—a girl forged by a guy who never got the girl. (As the critic Lila Shapiro memorably put it for Vulture, “He wanted to be her, and he wanted to fuck her.”) Still, the show only attracted more fans—including pop-culture-savvy young feminists and academics—and the interest of the nascent blogosphere, all of which Whedon courted. “We think very carefully about what we’re trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we’re writing it,” he told The New York Times in Buffy’s final year. “So it really is, apart from being a big pop-culture phenom, something that is deeply layered textually episode by episode.”
With the money the Buffy series made, the critical acclaim it received, and the public and pedagogical accolades, Whedon seemed to be living his dream. “I always intended for this to be a cultural phenomenon,” he told Empire for the show’s 20th anniversary. “That’s how I wrote it. In the back of my mind, I was always picking up an Oscar or a Saturn Award and everyone was playing with Buffy dolls.” He moved on to superhero movies, rewriting X-Men in 2000 and writing and directing the 2012 film The Avengers. Allegations by cast and crew members of abusive on-set behavior—claims that Whedon has publicly disputed or denied—have cast a pall over his oeuvre. But try finding any modern franchise without his mark: the detached irony of the dialogue, the empowerment story, the superficial feminism. A body of work that Whedon himself called “a rage-filled hormonal autobiography” has become the lifeblood of American popular culture.
But an angry young man doesn’t change just because he reinvents himself as a young woman. And to me, it’s notable that when a woman had the power behind the camera, Whedon, whatever the reason, felt free to basically wash his hands of the project. But this same woman shot the following conversation, which notably doesn’t appear in Whedon’s original Buffy script:
Pike: I saved you a dance.
Buffy: You gonna ask me?
Pike: I suppose you want to lead.
Pike: Me neither.
Kuzui seemed to know that this exchange—in which a man refuses to control a woman, even when given the opportunity—would land with girls. And it still lands with me, as a woman, now.