Thursday, 22 August 2013

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 4.10 – 'Hush' & ANGEL, 1.10 – 'Parting Gifts'

Thursday, 22 August 2013
Little Girl: Can't even shout, can't even cry / The gentlemen are coming by / Looking in windows, knocking on doors / They need to take seven and they might take yours / Can't call to mom, can't say a word / You're gonna die screaming, but you won't be heard.

Joss Whedon's "HUSH" is so fantastic that it frustrated me Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn't achieve anything close to this level of quality more often, while also making you realise the standard of its Rogue's Gallery is oddly limp—content to simply throw cannon fodder vampires Buffy's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) way for easy-staking, in-between the occasional demon with varying coloured make-up jobs.

The sublime villains of "Hush" (levitating, be-suited ghouls known as 'The Gentlemen', who steal voices and harvest hearts) were mesmerising and genuinely terrifying creations, but they worked so well because they tap into so many basic human fears: primarily the inability to communicate. I hope this episode means more imaginative monsters will be along soon, because the creativity of The Gentlemen puts all the others in the shade.

As loosely explained, "Hush" concerns the arrival of The Gentlemen to Sunnydale to retrieve seven hearts from a population they turn mute because a single human scream is their Achilles Heel. Joss Whedon's script has a great deal of fun with the limitations of the hour being mostly without dialogue (his strength as a writer), as the characters struggle to make themselves understood. It surprised me how creepy and bizarre it was to see people behaving like they're trapped in a silent movie. I had assumed it would be mostly funny (and there are certainly hilarious moments, like Buffy's mime for 'staking' being misunderstood as 'masturbation'), but most of the time it was very unnerving... perhaps because other sounds still existed, and the episode's music became more noticeable in the absence of any dialogue, taking on a very Danny Elfman-like vibe in the process.

I also enjoyed how The Gentlemen's appearance and threat owed a debt to other supernatural influences: from Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street ("Hush" opens with Buffy having a bizarre dream; The Gentlemen were given a creepy Freddy Krueger-style nursery rhyme), to Alex Proyas' Dark City (the look of The Gentlemen reminded me of that 1998 film's own levitating villains, The Strangers, and the fact they hid behind the face of a clock tower seemed to confirm that influence). It was also fun to spot renowned physical actor Doug Jones as the taller Gentlemen, years before he would become famous for working with Guillermo del Toro on projects like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth.

Some added treats with "Hush" included how the hour developed the situation between Buffy and Riley (Marc Blucas), who during the course of this storyline come to realise each other's secret—with Riley acting on behalf of The Initiative to stop The Gentlemen, and Buffy doing likewise with her own gang of friends. It was a brilliant decision to have their eyes opened during the course of an episode where communication was so difficult, leading to the perfect final line from Buffy that they "have to talk".

Elsewhere, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) found a friend in fellow Wicca pupil Tara (Amber Benson), whom I'm assuming will become her lover given the obvious vibe between them. The lovely moment when the two trainee witches joined hands to double their strength and move a vending machine to block a doorway using telekinesis was one of the coolest moments Willow's had on the show. The idea of two people being literally stronger together than when separated also has obvious merit as an analogy for a good relationship, which Willow needs after being dumped by Oz.

The funny thing about this episode is how it's one of the very few post-season 1 episodes of BtVS that I actually watched when it aired in the UK. The impact it had was big enough to draw the attention of folk outside its own fan circle, so this was technically my second viewing—although it was notable how little I'd remembered beyond the loose set-up and clock tower fight. I can't recall why the obvious magnificence of this hour didn't turn me into a fan, but for whatever reason I just went back to whatever I was into back in the late-'90s. More fool me, because "Hush" should have been a gateway drug.

written & directed by Joss Whedon | 14 December 1999

Cordelia: I didn't ask for this responsibility, unlike some people who shall remain lifeless.

I don't want to say the loss of Doyle has had an immediate impact on the quality of Angel, because I don't think anything about that character was inherently bad, per se, and Glenn Quinn was a pleasant screen presence, but it's true that "PARTING GIFTS" was one of the best episodes yet. It dealt with Angel (David Boreanaz) and Cordelia's (Charisma Carpenter) feelings off loss for their friend pretty well, although the former was primarily concerned about how his business will continue now there's nobody around to have plot-hastening visions. Fortunately, Doyle's gift from 'The Powers That Be' appears to have been transmitted to Cordelia during their farewell kiss last week, and I'm more than happy with that decision. Cordelia can be fun, but I'm not sure what earned her a place on the team to begin with. At least now there's a good reason for her to be there.

Adding to the general sense of improvement, this episode reintroduced Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), the snooty Watcher who took over from Giles in the third season of BtVS. While it's true Denisof's English accent rings a little false to English ears (it's good, but a little too mannered), as a character he's enormous fun. The way he was introduced as a 'rogue demon hunter', in town to capture a demon called Barney (Maury Sterling), was one of the funniest sequences Angel's delivered so far. Wesley in black bike leathers, trying to be cool and utterly failing in Angel's presence, just made me giggle more than I expected it to. Considering Angel's supposed to be the darker, edgier sibling of BtVS, it's worth noting that it only really seems to work when it's being more light-hearted and fun... with a dingier colour palette.

I also liked this week's villain, demon Barney; a black-marketeer with empathic powers, who spent half this episode as comic relief (a sort of Billy Crystal with wilting ears), only to reveal his true colours halfway through when he kidnapped clairvoyant Cordelia and tried to sell her at auction. Sterling was great in both guises, although I was a little disappointed his nice-guy persona was a façade and he didn't become part of the team. For awhile, I could really imagine Angel improving immeasurably if it became more of a crime-solving ensemble piece. Oh well, with bumbling Wesley around I can see Angel being a great deal more fun going forward, which is good enough...

written by David Fury & Jeannine Renshaw | directed by James A. Contner | 14 December 1999