Sunday, 15 October 2017

October Nightmares III #15: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003) - Spoiler: It's a Metaphor

"Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a Chosen One. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer."

If you've ever read or seen Carrie, you'll know that it starts with a clumsy scene of the titular character getting her first period. Having lived a sheltered life due to her crazy religious mother, Carrie is understandably freaked out that her body looks like something from a Cannibal Corpse CD cover. Everything in the novel from that moment to Carrie's telekinetic massacre of the high-school prom attendees (who had just humiliated her by covering her in pigs' blood), is simply a bad metaphor for burgeoning womanhood and female sexuality.

But let's give Stephen King a break, it was fairly radical notion for a debut horror novel in the chauvinistic Seventies, and practically elegant by the standards of pulp horror. A subset genre which concerns itself less with subtlety, and more with giant bees attacking people when they're fucking.

The point I'm taking three paragraphs to make is this: writers like King portray womanhood as a terrifying force which will fuck you up if you tell it that it looks fat in its favourite dress. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then, feels like the very antithesis to this line of thought. Presenting womanhood and female sexuality not as an icky Dragon Ball Z style power, but as an empowering force to rally behind. Because there's nothing like co-opting feminist ideals for getting laid, is there Joss Whedon  

When preparing my lists for October Nightmares I usually try to focus on the less obvious choices; but there are certain shows like Buffy and The X-Files which altered the landscape of television in such a big way that they're impossible to ignore. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly was a massive cultural force back in the day. A show which attracted serious academic attention whilst simultaneously defining an entire generation. This was Beverly Hills, 90210 written for the kids who got stuffed in lockers by the cool kids.

Typical the notion of a Vampire Slayer would conjure up images of stuffy old men (usually Peter Cushing) in Hammer Horror films slinging about a bible and crucifix; or Keanu Reeves proclaiming "It's the man himself!" in his incredibly fake British accent in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. Buffy the Vampire Slayer tipped this notion on its head by having the monster slaying gene firmly on the X chromosome - monster hunting being something which is magically passed onto a random woman each generation. Like the female equivalent of mad kings and their haemophilia.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the latest in the long line of Slayers; a 16-year-old dizzy, blonde middle-class girl who in a conventional horror story would be the cheerleader who gets bumped off by the killer in the opening act. Here, she's a properly hard bastard who has super-strength and an innate understanding of the art of killing. The series follows the 1992 film no one remembers - which had Kristy Swanson as Buffy, starring alongside Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, David Arquette, and fucking Luke Perry - and sees Buffy move to Sunnydale, California, after burning down her own school in a fight against vampires.

Fortunately (or unfortunately for Buffy) Sunnydale happens to rest upon a Hellmouth, a gateway to Hell. Specifically it's Sunnydale High School where the Hellmouth is...wait a minute. High School as literal Hell? Oh you, Joss. That's not the only metaphor or bit of symbolism abound in Buffy - it'd be easier to list the aspects of the show Joss Whedon doesn't twist into something with a double meaning. Witchcraft = lesbianism, vampire attacks = sex, male monsters = the patriarchy, and so on and so forth. Picture your average teen drama and the melodrama they draw out of the teenage experience. Now supplant that with monsters and the supernatural, and you'll have a fair idea of how the average episode of Buffy works.

As Buffy navigates the pitfalls of being an outcast at high school - and pines for a normal life whilst moonlighting as a killer of monsters who happen to be metaphors for an outbreak of spots or something - she finds herself under the guidance of one Rupert Giles (Anthony Head). Giles is a Watcher from an ancient order destined to support the Slayers; though no one seems to question this creepy arrangement of old men forcefully inserting themselves into the lives of young girls under the guise of 'destiny'. Stuffy and unashamedly English Giles may be (though if I didn't know Anthony Head was British, I'd have though he was a Yank putting on the Brit shtick), but he's the Mr. Miyagi to Buffy's Daniel-San.

Buffy has her own, ugh, Scooby Gang - support characters who mainly exist for the Whedon-esque humour to be thrown around. There's Willow (Alyson Hannigan) who represents every Nineties' chick cliché going (she's a Wicca/witch, alternative, New Age chick) and is the same basic character Hannigan also played in American Pie, How I Met Your Mother, and whatever else she has been in. And there's also Xander (Nicholas Brendon) who's essentially a discount Bruce Campbell - a perpetual loser type who carries himself with smarmy humour and is constantly shat on by the universe.

They're later joined by the psychotic "I can change him" peroxide blonde vampire Spike (James Marsters), aka Billy Idol 2.0, and another vampire, the eternally dull Angel (David Boreanaz) - who was so boring and brooding he naturally got his own spin off show. He also has this peculiar curse where, whenever he fucks Buffy, he turns evil. Aren't men just the worst, Joss?

Being a monster-of-the-week show the episodes were very hit and miss. As is per for course for this kind of show, the first few seasons were particularly patchy. A surprising amount of the storylines were essentially 'Boys, boys, boys' for a show subversive enough to have its scrawny teenaged lead engage in air-fu with the undead.

One episode saw an ancient demon get released onto the school computers and flirt with Willow via MSN messenger (this was the 90's, no one knew how computers worked), there was also a girl who turned invisible because no one paid attention to her, hyena people (I know), and who could forget the giant mantis disguised as a hot school teacher who prayed on her male students. There was also the dad from Eight Simple Rules who played a passive-aggression step dad robot - who would build something like that?

The episodes do get better later on - the quality of the episodes seems to run in parallel with the quality of the vampire make-up. Vampires in this show have a face that resembles Mickey Rourke sniffing a rank fart, and the initial plastic-looking prosthetics certainly don't do them any favours. The writers can't pull off story-arcs though: whether it's a Frankenstein's creature kept in a military base under a colleague, a mayor who is secretly a giant primordial worm, or a demon who takes the form of some spoilt cunt who wouldn't look out of place in a Cruel Intentions film, the large-scale villains are terrible. 

Buffy tackled all manner of monsters and the ones which were good were very good indeed. There was some kind of lamprey-type monster which crawled out of a meteor, a child-eating spectre with retractable all-consuming eye-stalks, old woman with a murderous slug-like appendage growing out of her head, and a goblin-like creature which paralysed its victims and slowly consumed them alive. Buffy's rogues gallery was certainly impressive. But the best creatures had to be The Gentlemen. Terrifying Slender Man type figures (though these definitely have faces) who stole the town folk's voices and slashed their way through Sunnydale.

Their episode, 'Hush' , is groundbreaking for the fact it contains next to no dialogue and plays out like a German Expressionist film. Others favour the all-singing episode, but I prefer Hush. Because it marks the only time in the series the wise-cracking leads actually shut the hell up.

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