Sanguine Youth in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 1998
Creator Joss Whedon who also wrote and directed the "Buffy" movie of 1992, and wrote the creepy screenplay for "Alien: Resurrection" doesn't have a modern slash-and-gore sensibility like Kevin Williamson ("Scream"). He's a Gothicist in the old style, interested in the eerie, the haunted, the uncanny. His stuff doesn't leap at you with a knife, it creeps up your spine.
While tickling you and making you laugh, of course. Horror movie cliches have long been so familiar they're funny, and the only way to make them work at all is to get the audience's guard down with humor.
At 16, Buffy is informed that she's the one chosen vampire slayer, and from now on her extracurricular activities will be staking bloodsuckers and vanquishing other nasties. With her friends and allies, she battles vampires, invisible killers, homicidal mummies, witches, sea monsters, teachers who are really bugs, salesmen who are made of bugs . . .
The show doesn't spoof itself and so collapse into camp, but it has a nice appreciation of the absurdities inherent in its whole premise. So the characters in "Buffy" have their own sardonic reactions to the weirdness around them, as if the wisecracking Joel and the robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" had suddenly been transported into the movie they were sending up. The problem for the students of Sunnydale High is that, after they quit laughing, whatever awful thing they were laughing at is still there.
Sunnydale, Calif., as its name implies, is the cliche of a sunlit middle-class American small town. "Buffy" works against atmospherics, going for the contrasts implicit in a horror story setting that looks like the subject of a Beach Boys song. Impossibly fit, gorgeous teens stroll the halls. Buffy herself, in the person of Sarah Michelle Gellar, is a major babe, way too good-looking to ever be the nerd she's portrayed as. But nerd she is, child of a broken home (she lives with Mom), with a suspicious past (she burned down the gym of her last high school) and given to really dweeby acts such as carrying around sharpened wooden stakes in her backpack.
Buffy hangs out with two other supposed losers, the intellectual Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and dorky but handsome Xander (Nicholas Brendon). Their guide and mentor Buffy's "Watcher" is the bookish Englishman Rupert Giles (Anthony Head), who runs the school library. In one of the show's best recurring jokes, the library is the perfect place for this group of monster-battlers to do all its meeting and plotting, since no one else is ever there.
Last season, Buffy's gang was joined by snooty Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the school's "popular girl," and thoughtful, offbeat Oz (Seth Green), who became a werewolf after getting bitten by his infant cousin at Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody parties at a club called the Bronze. When she's not there, Buffy is dutifully patrolling the Sunnydale cemetery, on the lookout for vampires, whom she thumps with a few karate blows, then jabs with a stake. She doesn't have much of a social life. She was in love with the good vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), but then he turned evil and she had to kill him. Love hurts.
Adolescence is hell and, looked at from one perspective, "Buffy" is as much documentary as fantasy. A witch mother jealous of her daughter's youth takes over the girl's body so she can join the cheerleading team. A girl is snubbed, ignored and looked through so often that she finally becomes invisible. Buffy nearly gets a Stepford stepdad (John Ritter) when her mother unknowingly dates a robot. The sexy new biology teacher turns out to be a praying mantis, as Xander discovers to his regret. (Xander is the first to admit that he has terrible luck with women: He also fell for a 2,000-year-old mummy who crumbled to dust in his embrace, leaving her desiccated arms still clinging to him.)
The show is rooted in the vulnerable isolation of teenage life, the sense of living in a reality that is incommunicable. On the one hand, it seems ridiculously convenient for the plot that no one's parents are ever around when all these monstrous things are happening. On the other hand, that's exactly what life at 15 or 16 feels like. How could your parents help with anything really important? How could you even begin to make them understand?
Sunnydale High is squeaky clean by contemporary standards, peopled with teenagers to whom a kiss is still a big deal, who accept the authority of teachers and parents. There's drinking, but there doesn't seem to be any drugs. This is basically the same '50s adolescent world as in "The Blob" or "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," and for the show to work it almost has to be. Bring in some real-life horror like AIDS, and the monsters shrivel to papier-mache.
The adults in "Buffy" tend to be more clueless than villainous, though a swimming coach who turned the team into sea monsters echoed the mad scientist of "Teenage Werewolf." (Tracking the team through a sewer, Buffy mutters, "This'll be great for my reputation: 'She did it with the whole swim team.' ") The teachers are basically well-meaning, and the first principal was a touchy-feely type who wanted to "relate" to the kids. Xander and some other students got possessed by hyenas and killed him, a lesson not lost on the nasty new principal, Mr. Snyderman (Armin Shimerman), who boasts that he is not a nice guy: "The last principal was a nice guy, and he got eaten." Snyderman and the mayor of Sunnydale seem to have some inkling that there are strange things afoot, but they are the only adults who really do.
Sunnydale is a very odd burg. If you're the creator of a contemporary Gothic teen fantasy, it has everything you need: split-level houses and an ancient church containing a medieval relic. As necessary, Whedon has tossed in a deserted factory, a deserted mansion, a nearby college (for the evil, snake-demon-worshiping frat boys), an Army base, a magic shop, and a bar where the vampires hang out (complete with a sleazy bartender who wants to take "artistic" nude photographs of Buffy). So Sunnydale grows, independent of logic and zoning laws.
Like "The X-Files," "Buffy" has both a long-running story and episodic ones. Angel belongs to the long-running story. Though he died at the end of last season, Boreanaz's contract has been renewed. (It's hard to know what they're going to do with Angel, who when he was bad was very, very bad: He killed Giles's inamorata, the Gypsy techno-pagan Jenny Calendar, played by Robia La Morte, and left her in Giles's bed at the end of a trail of rose petals.) Also renewed were the contracts of two other actors, whose characters were last seen fleeing Sunnydale in a fabulous finned '50s automobile: Spike (James Marsters, the wittiest actor on the show), a Cockney-accented vampire with a personal style modeled on Sting; and Drusilla (Juliet Landau of "Ed Wood"), also Cockney-accented, sort of, and extremely, extremely strange.
"I was dreaming," Drusilla murmurs sexily when Spike wakes her. "We were in Paris. . . . You had the branding irons." Drusilla is a few teeth short of a comb: At one point we see her sulkily trying to persuade an unseen bird to eat, and Spike has to explain to her that it's dead. Closeup of the bird on its back on the bottom of the cage. Drusilla goes to pieces. She doesn't like reality. Brutal, even sadistic killers, she and Spike have a tender romantic relationship: "My dark flower," he calls her. "My ripe, wicked black plum."
In the final episode of last season, Spike and Buffy team up, and he finds himself sitting in the living room with her mom (Kristine Sutherland). Awkward silence. "Do I know you?" she finally inquires politely of this new friend of her daughter's, and he responds, "Um, you hit me with an ax. Remember: 'Leave my daughter alone!' " Awkward silence continues.
"Buffy's" jokes and drolleries, and its fragile tone of humor and horror, are surprisingly consistent from show to show. The series has a talented roster of writers, including ex-"X-Files" producer Howard Gordon, but it feels as if Whedon polishes every episode. Altogether, "Buffy" is an odd, very personal fantasy; it's hard to imagine the show working with anyone else running it (it would go flat and annoyingly quirky, the way "Twin Peaks" did when David Lynch wasn't directing). Whedon is a television auteur.
He seems to have found himself in the medium. His film version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was hit-or-miss, though admittedly the hits such as casting Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) as a vampire sidekick were right on target. And his screenplay for "Alien: Resurrection" had to jam his ideas into the "Alien" format, where they didn't quite fit. The "Alien" movies, though they have a female star, are predator-slasher horrors. With Whedon's screenplay, "Alien: Resurrection" was a fever-dream about female sexuality, full of awe, disgust, fear and desire, and Sigourney Weaver's Ripley was a goddess with cold reptile blood in her veins.
The movies' response to feminism has been to create heroines Ripley was one who might be called "Boys With Breasts." Even though they were women it was okay, because they were just like men. But though Buffy batters bad guys with the best of them, she's all girl. She's emotional. She has bad hair days (which Cordelia is always quick to comment on). She worries about her boyfriend. She has a stuffed pig named Mr. Gordo. And with Gellar in the role, she's the sexiest nerd in history. Gellar's Buffy looks as if she might replace Diana Rigg's Mrs. Peel as The Woman Men Would Most Like To Be Beaten Up By. And Whedon isn't above the more traditional S&M images: Who can forget how Buffy looked after killing a snake-demon, her little black dress clinging to her lithe figure, broken manacles dangling from her wrists like saucy bracelets?
Yet for all the kinkiness, jokes and flirting with the ridiculous, the main impression one takes away from several viewings of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is what you find in all the best horror films, an elusive melancholy. There's real pain in the show, and horrid injustices. Cruelty is common. The innocent suffer. There are no comforting moral lessons. There isn't even an end Sunnydale is built over a mouth of Hell and so never runs out of monsters. When you think about it, there's a kind of genius in the idea of the town's high school being located over a Hell mouth.
After all, whose wasn't?
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post
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