*/**** Image D+ Sound D
starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens, Rutger Hauer
screenplay by Joss Whedon
directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui
by Walter Chaw Constrained by, among other things, what writer/creator Joss Whedon calls Donald Sutherland's reprehensible attitude and script tampering plus director Fran Rubel Kuzui's inability to stand up to the veteran thespian, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a slog through the underbelly of cinematic dredge that feels at least twice as long as its 86 minutes. The most stunning thing about this horror-comedy is that the TV series spun from it is very possibly among the top ten shows in regards to quality of writing, performance, and level of intelligence, of the past decade.
Kristy Swanson is a dimwit valley girl sleepwalking through her vacuous life...and she plays one in this film. A mysterious man dressed like the fourth Dr. Who, Merrick (Donald Sutherland), informs cheerleader-by-day Buffy that she is to be the fabled "chosen one" by night. After a lacklustre training scene, Buffy proves herself ready to take on the legions of the bloodsucking damned led by the evil Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his hammy henchman, Amilyn (Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman). As himbo love-interest to the bimbo heroine, Luke Perry makes his film debut instantly typecast as stoned-out lowlife mechanic Pike. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is essentially a series of dumb jokes about how dumb Swanson, er, Buffy is, alternated with badly-choreographed action sequences intended, I suppose, as camp. The film inspires deep embarrassment for all involved and resentment at having been cheated out of one's entertainment dollar.
The most interesting thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is spotting the budding newcomer: Ben Affleck appears briefly as an overacting rival basketball player (a marginal surprise, as Affleck seldom shows a pulse anymore much less an instinct to upstage); the better-as-a-boy Hilary Swank portrays one of Buffy's idiotic pals in easily the worst performance of a terribly-performed movie; David Arquette sprays spittle-flecked invectives; and the unbearably beautiful Natasha Gregson Wagner has the bloodless role of a victim. Reubens's death scene is memorable but he underwhelms in each of his other "breakthrough" moments, and it just couldn't be soon enough for Rutger Hauer to be put out of my misery. His dying line of "oops" when taken with his "Tannhauser Gate" Blade Runner exit speech is as eloquent a summation as any of the actor's decades-long career decline. Sutherland, for what it's worth, seems incapable of pretending he's interested in the film--his reported disdain for the entire project infects every aspect of his fatigued turn; it's unprofessional, although understandable.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is awful. It's a hack-job of the first water, tepid in its execution and so unusually unaffecting that its images are forgotten as soon as they pass from view--which is, of course, an incalculable blessing. The less I remember of Hilary Swank crossing her eyes after getting bonked on the head, the better.
Matching the incompetence of the film flaw for flaw, the Fox Video DVD release of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the worst transfer I've seen from the studio since their non-anamorphic days. The 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation is grainy, muted, and dark, barely improving on VHS if it's an improvement at all, and there is almost no shadow detail. I tried this baby out in pitch-dark conditions and still couldn't decipher some of the action; I don't know that I've really ever had that problem with the DVD format to this degree before now. The telecine operators surely could have done better with the nine-year-old elements.
And yet, the Dolby Digital 4.0 remixed audio is worse than the picture quality! It changes volume in the middle of a scene, displays audible hiss for all looped dialogue, and, in one priceless, incongruous encounter, makes it seem as though Buffy and Merrick are talking into buckets in the Sistine Chapel. I've heard better sound production on home movies shot on third-generation videotapes, and by that I don't mean "marginally" better. Every technical aspect of this DVD is a mangled travesty of inattention and lack of care. Granted, the film is no great shakes, but there needs to be some kind of accountability for the format or else why bother with putting the title out in the first place? A standard and brief "making-of" featurette, a theatrical trailer, and two television spots round out the disc. Originally published: September 26, 2001.