‘BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’ MOVIE RETRO: A HEROINE’S JOURNEY
At this point in our collective consciousness, we all know The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces catalogs the archetype of the hero, and the journey of the protagonist must undergo to attend the title of “Hero.”
But what of the women? Campbell has infamously said that women don’t need a journey because the woman is always there. “All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”
And to that, I say, in my best ’90s Valley girl accent, ‘As if!”
In recent decades, it’s become increasingly necessary to understand the existence and importance of a Heroine’s journey. Maureen Murdock, a student of Campbell, tried her hand at devising what mysteries lie in this quest. But I, and many others, find her vision lack. Focusing on spiritual aspects of a woman’s inherent nature and the idea of a masculine identity coming together with a feminine one is just so… dated. That was 1990.
Just two years later, the story of a flighty, teenage cheerleader who’s put upon by destiny to fight the vampires, demons and forces of darkness was introduced into the world. And it is in her journey that we find a template. Perhaps vague, in its earliest phase, but ready for GenX and generations to come.
Her name is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She wouldn’t become “Buffy Summers” until 1997. And before she was Buffy, she was “Rhonda, the Immortal Waitress.”
Joss Whedon was building his resume when he came up with the idea. He was a staff writer on sitcoms like Roseanne and Parenthood. He stepped in as “script doctor” for films like Speed, Waterworld, and Twister. During this time, he was gearing up to write his first original feature.
Whedon was getting tired of blonde girls dying in alleys and wanted to create, “a seemingly insignificant female who in fact turns out to be extraordinary.” The idea turned from Rhonda to Buffy the Slayer, and that’s about when Fran Ruben Kuzui discovered Whedon’s script.
Fran Kuzui with her husband, Kaz Kuzui, had founded Kuzui Enterprises, a Japanese distribution, and production company and they were looking for opportunities for Fran to direct. As an established producer and script consultant with 10 years of experience, Fran was ready to take the leap into directing. Her first film, Tokyo Pop (1988), made her a viable investment for Kuzui Enterprises to partner with 20th Century Fox and Dolly Parton’s Sandollar productions to make Buffy happen. Together, the companies brought the budget up to $7 million and were ready to get to work.
With the support of Fox, they were able to bring in stars like Kristy Swanson as the titular Buffy, Luke Perry as her wayward sidekick and love interest Pike, Rutger Hauer as the evil vampire Lothos, and Donald Sutherland as Buffy’s Watcher Merrick. The supporting cast included a myriad of talents like Paul Reubens, Sasha Jenson, and soon-to-be star Hilary Swank. Plus, a cameo by a young Ben Afleck.
Whedon and Kuzui worked together to flesh out the script, but it was obvious from the start they had a different vision for the picture. Fox was calling upon Kuzui to deliver an esoteric film, along the lines of Barton Fink and Naked Lunch, but with Kuzui’s comedic flair. They also knew exactly what kind of rating they wanted for the film, PG-13, leading to Kuzui trading some of Whedon’s darker elements for a more lighthhearted tone.
Though they gave her a lot of creative freedom, as a “for hire” director, Kuzui was concerned she would get kicked off the project – a phenomenon that had happened just two months before she found Buffy.
The reasoning? Per Kuzui, “I got told that they had decided that it was a guy‘s story, and they better have a man direct the film.” (Kuzui did not disclose what film this was, but did say it ended up not being made). She played a bit of ball for Buffy, hoping her creative work wouldn’t get stolen again, but also leading to an unhappy Whedon who would eventually walk off set midway through production due to the changes.
In 1999, Whedon’s original screenplay found adaptation in Dark Horse comics’ “The Origin” by Dan Brereton and Christopher Golden. But whether you read the comic or watch the film, you’ll find the story of an ordinary girl asked to do the extraordinary, much like Kuzui herself who, in 1992, did not have many female directors to use as role models for her work.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is both a coming-of-age story and a heroine’s journey, and perhaps those two things are very similar in a women’s life. Playing the role of a flighty high school senior, Buffy and her friends are disinterested in the world outside of the superficial. They care about fashion more than geography and are judgmental of which movie theatre they go to. Their boyfriends and jackets are status symbols, and it is this disconnect with the feminine potential that must be resolved for a woman to come forth as a hero. To break through the socially prescribed addictions and become whole.
And what do I mean by feminine potential? That women can not only be strong but that their power comes from their femininity. Powerful because of, not in spite of, how feminine they are. It’s Buffy’s keen fashion sense that burns Lothos with her purse hairspray allowing her to get away. It’s Buffy’s cramps that notify her vampires are afoot. It’s Buffy’s compassion and value for human life that allows her to break from her would-be peers when they care more about a borrowed jacket than their friend’s life.
When Buffy chooses to go to the dance after Merrick’s death, she not choosing the “girly weak” alternative to fighting. She’s choosing to be a protector rather than a hunter. Men’s journey’s have a lot of power and status because of achievements, seeking them out for the heroic position it places them in. But Buffy’s status as a heroine is inherently brave and powerful because she doesn’t seek violence, she protects others from it. And that’s not weak, nor is it masculine. It’s girly. It’s exactly who she is and there’s power in that.
Murdock’s Heroine journey is inherently floored because the first step is embracing the masculine to overcome and reconcile with it later. This is dumb and idealizes the heroic dominance. Her idea of being a heroine can only happen by going through a masculine journey, taking on masculine traits, then reconciling with the goddess/mother/feminine later. Buffy never gives up her femininity, instead finding power in it.
Merrick realizes this in his dying moments, saying, “You do everything wrong.” It’s a poignant moment in her journey because Merrick is pointing out that the way he’s trained previous slayers, guided by the male-dominated hero’s codex, is wrong. Buffy becomes the Slayer of Legend and kills Lothos because she breaks the rules an she embraces her famininuity, reflected really well in her killer dance outfit (those wrestling shoes! The ’90s equivalent of wearing Converse to the prom.) Followed up by Pike saying “You’re not like normal girls.” And Buffy replied, “Yes, I am.”
Reflecting this with Kuzui herself, Merrick was Whedon, trying to control his vision of what the film should be and Lothos was 20th Century Fox, a powerful vampire (and what are studios if not vampires) trying to sway the future. Kuzui stood up for her vision and ran Whedon right off the set, who fought to keep her directorial status after being removed from a previous project, and she appreciated the lessons of working with veteran actors Hauer and Sutherland while keeping her artistic integrity intact.
Of course, when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released 30 years ago, the critics and audiences perhaps weren’t ready for that vision of a Heroine. Grossing just under double its budget at $16.6 million, Buffy was a box office failure. Luckily, it found life in the VHS rental market and has since grown into a cultural phenomenon with DVD and BluRay releases still finding audiences after the success of the series.
It was another woman, Gail Berman of Sandollar Productions, who began seeking new life of Buffy on television. When she approached Whedon, she thought he would loathe revisiting the material, but instead was met with an exited Father happy to return to his baby. And though Dolly Parton’s name is not on Buffy specifically, they do share a birthday on January 19th. Kuzui Enterprises would help in the production of the series, as well.
There is some division amongst fans when it comes to TV vs. Movie Buffy. The film is a campy romp, more teen comedy then dramedy-horror, but the themes and lessons in the movie are really just a bite-sized version of what the TV show offered and, frankly, were ahead of their time. The cult following of the film is a testament to the vision of a myriad of creative individuals, specifically women, who understood Whedon’s idea that audiences were tired of blonde girls dying in alleys instead of finding their strength in the darkness.
And if society had hidden the awesome power of women in the darkness, Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought it into the light in 1992, something we should all appreciate 30 years later.
Original article at Horror Geek Life
This article has been reproduced for archive purposes.