Sunday, 26 August 2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 1.1 & 1.2 - 'Welcome to the Hellmouth' & 'The Harvest'

Sunday, 26 August 2012
Buffy: To make you a vampire they have to suck your blood. And then you have to suck their blood. It's like a whole big sucking thing.

Never underestimate the power of a good title. 1992's Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have earned twice its $7 million budget on opening weekend, but it was hardly a success for screenwriter Joss Whedon, who felt the movie strayed far from his original vision. But the odd-sounding title lodged in audience minds, and five years later Whedon found himself making an unlikely sequel in the form of a teen-friendly TV series for The WB—albeit one specifically following the canonicity of Whedon's movie script, not what made it to multiplexes. One of the most appealing aspects of this 1997 pilot is how it forgoes preamble or an origin story, particularly as such a thing is de rigeur in its genre. Whedon either hoped you'd seen the movie or, more likely, trusted his audience weren't idiots and could catch the drift...

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a petite all-American blonde, whose perky cuteness belies the fact she's a stake-wielding superhero; the "Chosen One", fated to battle the forces of darkness. This largely comes in the form of vampires in need of slaying, who amass around the small-town of Sunnydale because it's at the epicentre of a nasty Hellmouth. Following the events of the '92 movie (a climactic gym fire, started to defeat the vampires), Buffy's moved to a new school and looks determined to put her supernatural past behind her. This despite the fact new English librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Head) has apparently been assigned to Sunnydale High to assist The Slayer in her duties (who sent him?), and trouble's brewing with the suspicious disappearances of two local teens—who quenched the thirst of resident bloodsucker Darla (a pre-Dexter Julie Benz).

The production values of Buffy's premiere are noticeably low, reminding me of the cheapo shows it would inspire, like Charmed. It's actually rather astonishing to think this was made in '97, because aesthetically it looks closer to '93. "WELCOME TO THE HELLMOUTH" overcomes a shoestring budget by never relying on its chintzy special effects; which is just as well, because they make Tales from the Crypt's look accomplished. The pilot does a credible, swift job of introducing the core characters with clarity: gregarious Xander (Nicholas Brendan), wallflower Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and "mean girl" Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). The nascent "Scooby Gang" each represent stereotypes of US high school society (the jock, the geek, the bitch), but there are already signs Whedon's going to play with conventions and avoid clunky clichés. The teaser itself offers a fun twist on horror convention, with a terrified blonde revealed to be the threat during a tense night-time sequence where she breaks into school with her would-be boyfriend.

The conclusion of the pilot's story, "THE HARVEST" is noticeably more confident and fast-moving sans introductions. Quickly, the main characters are brought up to speed about the existence of vampires (vestiges of the "Old Ones" from before the dawn of man, blah-de-blah) and how each generation births a Slayer entrusted with keeping them in check. More importantly, everyone buys into this craziness with the minimum of fuss, having just seen fought off vampires in a Hammer horror graveyard. Indeed, it's a trope of Whedon's to confront an easy cliché and subvert it, so there are thankfully no scenes of characters refusing to believe what's staring them in the face. Vampires exist, kids, deal with it.

The minuscule budget still gives the show a tacky feel, not helped by some of the weak acting (only Gellar and Head feel like fully-formed), but in some ways that adds to the fun. The opening credits feature hairy tarantulas crawling across dusty books and green liquid bubbling in a cauldron, and those visuals evoke the pulpy charm of this show. It's a live-action cartoon horror (the post-TV eighth and ninth seasons literally embrace the graphic novel format), and the lack of a good budget means the show can't rely on visual punches—in contrast to, say, True Blood a decade later.

This episode firmly sets up season 1's "Big Bad", The Master (Mark Metcalf), a Nosferatu-like vampire who can't escape his subterranean lair until a particular ceremony's performed (the titular Harvest); and the underlying romance between Buffy and Angel (David Boreanaz), who's presented as an inscrutable hunk who knows more than he should. It's hard to imagine anyone not immediately suspecting he's a good vampire, who'll cause Buffy heartache down the line. Even in '97. He just looks the heart-breaking type.

An unremarkable start, albeit with a few saving graces and a likeable concept; but this feels a world away from the pop-culture gem Buffy's remembered as, and more like one of its own turn-of-the-century imitators.

written by Joss Whedon / directed by Charles Martin Smith (1.1) & John T. Kretchmer (1.2) / 10 March 1997 / The WB

Buffy reviews have been requested by DMD readers on numerous occasions over the years, so this is my attempt to catchup with this highly-regarded series. I can't guarantee the regularity of reviews, and can't promise I won't get bored and stop writing about Buffy at the drop of a hat, but reader encouragement/comments will definitely help keep me engaged with this attempt.