Saturday, March 11, 2017

How I Came to Love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the airing of “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” the premier episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Upon seeing that this milestone was approaching, my first thought was “Damn, I’m getting old.” When Buffy started, I was just 26, and in my second year of teaching. It would be another year before I met my wife. I have gone through three presidents, five Star Wars movies, thousands of students, and eight cats.

I am a fan of many things. It makes it impossible to be a rabid fan of any single franchise, at least not for long. Back in 1997, though, I would have likely considered myself to be a science fiction fan more than a horror fan. It makes sense – horror films were in a lull, Star Wars had dominated my childhood and was beginning to emerge from pop-culture purgatory (it was so out of vogue one of my first days teaching a student asked me if I had ever heard of a film called “Star Wars”), The X-Files and Babylon 5 were in full swing. But as a fan, it was Star Trek that was mostly catching my attention. It was coming off the successful Next Generation run, with Deep Space Nine in the midst of its fifth season and well on its way to becoming my favorite series in the franchise. I was having trouble maintaining interest in Voyager, but was sticking with it in hopes it would improve (it didn’t, at least not enough, and I stopped watching soon after).

And then along came Buffy.

My first real exposure to Buffy the Vampire Slayer came from (I believe) Starlog magazine, in the summer of 1992, shortly before the film’s release. I knew the film was coming out, but I had only marginal interest because of Donald Southerland’s involvement. Then I read the Starlog interview with then-unknown writer Joss Whedon. He explained his vision for Buffy, now familiar to fans. He wanted to subvert the trope of the helpless blonde girl who falls victim to the monster in the alley. Just once, he wanted to see her emerge victorious. It was an interesting idea, and in that interview, he not only sold me on the film, but convinced me that he was a fan of the genre, and a knowledgeable one. So I gave the film a shot, but aside from the performance of Paul “Pee Wee” Rubens, I came out of the theater disappointed. Either Whedon lacked the chops to back up his words or, more likely, the director and studio deviated from his ideas.
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Four and half years later, when I read that they were turning Buffy into a series (for the WB no less!), I was tempted to scoff along with everyone else. But I also remembered that interview, and decided to give it a shot.

I was enamored with the series from the start, and for several weeks had trouble reconciling the fact that I was enjoying Buffy so much, and Star Trek Voyager so little (surely a big factor in getting me to give up that ghost).  I recorded every episode, and re-watched them regularly, and managed to turn many friends, and eventually my wife, into fellow watchers.  Throughout its run, I would encounter people who laughed at the series, but few had ever watched an episode.

To be fair, the first season is rough, especially in hindsight. The first episode is good, but not brilliant, and there are plenty of clunkers mixed into those first thirteen episodes (“I Robot, You Jane” among the series’ very worst). But it was still very fresh compared to most of what was on the air. Whedon’s ability to subvert tropes kept us guessing, and his weird knack for language made it sound like nothing else (though it did turn some people off).

So I wanted to write something in its honor. Many are writing about its influence, and others about its best episodes (all the usual suspects: Hush, Becoming, Once More with Feeling, The Body, etc). Instead I found myself thinking back to those early episodes, and pondering what made me a fan. Not just the characters (always have been, always will be, a fan of nerdy Willow and Xander), and the dialogue and other general things that carried through the whole series, but what were specific moments from that first season. So I picked ten moments from that first season, listed in chronological order (needless to say, SPOILERS follow, but c’mon it’s been two decades!):

1.       Hello, Darla! (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”)

The very first scene of the first episode. At this point, I didn’t know my Sarah Michelle Geller from my Charisma Carpenter. Seeing a timid, blonde school girl (Dexter’s Julie Benz) sneaking into Sunnydale High with her cool, leather jacketed boyfriend, I figured this was the Buffy introduction. He was the vamp, and she would kill him. Of course, it wasn’t to be. Imagine my surprise when the cocky, rooftop loving stud turned into the series’ first victim. 

2.       Goodbye, Jesse! (“The Harvest”)

Originally aired with “Welcome to the Harvest” as a two-hour series premier, we were still at the point of learning who was who, and surely had not memorized the opening credits. It seemed to us that Jesse (Eric Balfour) would be part of the nascent Scooby Gang. Naturally, Whedon, a fellow comic nerd, had studied up on Super-Hero 101, and had Buffy’s new friend kidnapped and used as bait in a bound-to-be unsuccessful effort to trap the Slayer. Surely she would save the day, and they would have many seasons of fun adventures together. Except it didn’t work out that way.

1.       Here Comes the Sun (“The Harvest”)
Last one from the first episode, I promise. One of the vampire tropes that always bothered me was the convenient intervention of sunlight at the last second. So it was that the premier ends with Buffy facing off against super-vampire Luke in the Bronze, Sunnydale’s teen-friendly hangout. She raises a mic stand to impale Luke, who laughs because, hello, not a wooden stake. “Here’s something you forgot about, too – sunrise!” Buffy taunts as she hurls the mic stand through a window, bathing Luke in the yellow glow of the sun. I rolled my eyes, I’d seen it a hundred times before and was disappointed to see it yet again. And then “,,, is in about nine hours, moron,” as Buffy stabs the distracted vampire with a stake, averting the apocalypse. I laughed. They got me.

4.       The Trophy Mom (“The Witch”)

The first episode after the premier, “The Witch” had the heavy burden of showing viewers that the show was about more than vampires. A metaphor for the pressures parents can place on their kids, it veers wildly from silly to tragic and back again, and remains one of my favorite episodes, but there is something about the final shot that just creeps me out (and, given the callback in later seasons, likely resonated with others as well).
5.       The Breakup (“Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”)
A big theme in the first season was Buffy trying her best to shirk her duty to live a normal life. In this mostly forgettable episode, Buffy is trying to balance averting the apocalypse with dating a cute boy (Christopher Wiehl) and nearly gets him killed. Where we expect the boy to dump Buffy for being too weird and dangerous, it is instead Buffy who cuts him loose when he begs her to take him on more adventures. Superman could take a lesson from Miss Summers.
6.       Flutie’s Farewell Dinner (“The Pack”)
When Buffy’s schoolmates are possessed by hyenas in a forced bullying metaphor, they are called into Principle Flutie’s (Ken Lerner) office and eat him. It happens off screen, but it happens. In the era of The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Hannibal this may seem tame, but at the time I was shocked that they went there. Please remember, I was teaching high school students at the time, so it had some resonance.
7.       Do You Remember? (“The Pack”)
Another annoying trope in genre tales is when a possessed person conveniently forgets everything they did after being freed. And poor Xander (Nicholas Brendon) admits as much after being released from his inner hyena… but it is also clear he lied. Which means the rest of the pack will forever live with the memory of killing and eating poor Principle Flutie. It’s a tiny thing, but it tickled me.
8.       Poor Cordelia? (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”)
Putting a quantum mechanical spin on the Invisible Man, an ignored girl disappears and seeks revenge on the popular kids. Up to this point, head cheerleader Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) has been Buffy’s greatest mortal nemesis, and constant reminder of the shallow, stuck up bitch she used to be. When Invisible Marcie (Clea DuVall) ensnares Cordelia and threatens to mutilate her lovely face… well, this is a show that vamped Jesse, killed students at a regular clip, and just ate its principal – they might just dispense with the beauty queen! For me it remains one of the series most tense moments, but more importantly, it was the first step to humanizing Cordelia and eventually turning her into one of the show’s strongest characters.
9.       Open Your Textbooks (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”)
Little things go a long way, and for most fans, the tag at the end of this episode is what they remember best – the US government comes in at the last minute and takes Marcie away to be locked up forever… or to put her in a class of other invisible children, who will be taught the fine art of espionage. This is our first hint that the sinister forces in Buffy’s world are not escaping the notice of the mortals in charge.
10.   I Wonder Who She Is. (“Prophecy Girl”)

Obvious much of the series is a metaphor for the pains of adolescence. Here, after fighting vampires, demons and other assorted monsters for a dozen episodes, Buffy at last comes face to face with her mortality. When prophecy reveals that Buffy will be the latest slayer to die in the line of duty, to be forgotten and replaced by the next girl in line, she does what I imagine most girls would – she quits. For a character who was often vain and shallow, her raging at the unfairness of it all and final, tearful plea is heartbreaking. It is also a highlight for Sarah Michelle Geller, who could have chewed the scenery beginning to end, but brings the feels home by reigning it in at the end. A true turning point in the series.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Looking Back at 2016

It is Oscar night, so it is once again time to (again, a bit belatedly) look back at last year.

The Dark Discussions podcast is going stronger than ever. We now have two spin-off podcasts, and thanks to the efforts of Philip Peron, we were invited as guests at the first Scare-A-Con New England, including being on a panel. That there was no audience was disappointing, but it was a thrill nonetheless.

We were also vendors at Scares That Care Charity Weekend 3, where I also hosted a panel on the 100th anniversary of Frankenstein (ably abetted by Elizabeth Katherine Gray and Patrick Lacey). The panel was well received, and it looks likely that I will host another for STCW4, but the most important thing is that with the aid of our listeners we raised $300 for families in need. I hope to do better this year.

Horror had a decent year in theaters. There were disappointments such as Incarnate, but studios are much more interested in the successes of films like The Conjuring 2, The Shallows and Don't Breathe. While none of the films broke the top 20 at the year end box office, the low cost-low risk approach to horror films is appealing to the studios, who are looking for safer bets after big budget bombs like Ben Hur, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Gods of Egypt. 2017 is continuing this trend with hits like The Bye-Bye Man, Split, and now Get Out. Sadly, this is also discouraging investments in "big" budget horror, especially since the last two notable efforts - Crimson Peak ($60m) and A Cure for Wellness ($40m) - tanked.

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At this point, I am a bit overwhelmed with the amount of genre material on television and in theaters. It is impossible to keep up with it all while maintaining a day job. This past year added TV series such as Westworld, Colony, Humans, The Exorcist and The Expanse, while Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and others keep on going (sadly Penny Dreadful came to an end and Bates Motel will follow soon). Then in theaters there is the proliferation of comic book films - which is wonderful for a comic nerd like me - the return of franchises like Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner, and of course some original material like the Oscar nominated Arrival. It is good to be a geek.

For anyone interested in my full lists and other thoughts on the year, along with those of our co-hosts - please listen to Dark Discussions episode 267.

Favorite Film of 2016
Hard to call this year. A lot of films I really liked but not many I loved. I am going to let my John Goodman man-crush rule the day and say 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Best Horror Film 2016
The VVitch.  I wasn't as taken with this film at first, partly because it was so hard to understand the lead in the theaters. Rewatching it at home with sub-titles, I gained a greater appreciation, and reluctantly jumped on the bandwagon. I like 10 Cloverfield Lane more, but The VVitch is simply better crafted. Honorable mentions to The Invitation and Train to Busan.

Favorite SF Film
The Arrival. Another easy choice. Hope this gets studios to invest in more hard SF and not just the action romps. Honorable Mention: Midnight Special

Favorite Comic Book Film:
Deadpool. Also the most fun I had in theaters in 2016. Peel away the vulgarity and fourth wall breaking, and there is still a tight script and lots of inventive action. Honorable Mention: Captain America Civil War 

Favorite Action Film:
Didn't see a straight forward action film this year. Everything had some genre tint to it. I guess I'll toss a bone to Rogue One here.

Favorite Comedy:
The Nice Guys. I love Shane Black, and while this doesn't work as well as Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, it is a fun throwback to 70s noir. Runner Up: Keanu

Favorite Drama:
Nocturnal Creatures. Interesting faux-thriller had me invested start to finish. Runner up: Hell or High Water

Favorite Kids Film:
Zootopia. Great year for animation with Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, and Finding Dory, but if you throw in Breaking Bad jokes, you'll win my heart. Runner up: The Jungle Book.
Favorite Nature Horror:
The Pack. Excellent killer dingo film. Runner up: The Shallows

Favorite Zombie Film
Train to Busan, also the DDP consensus pick for top horror film. Ironically, we never devoted an episode to it. Runners up: Viral, What We Become

Favorite Vampire Film
The traditional monsters had a weak year (not a werewolf in sight), and Therapy for a Vampire is the only bloodsucker film I can recall. Decent film, but I thought they handled the vamps well.

Favorite Horror-Comedy
Freaks of Nature. Would have been buried by the horror-comedies of 2015, but it mostly had the field to itself this year. Still a good watch, loaded with fun cameos, most notably Keegan Michael Key as a vampire who is also a teacher at the end of his tether. 

Favorite Horror Anthology
Southbound, with Patient Seven a close runner up.

Favorite Slasher
Last Girl Standing. Runner up: The Windmill. Ask me tomorrow, and I could flip that.

Best Sequel:
Ouija: Origin of Evil. So much better than the original.

Hero of the Year
Maeve, Westworld

Villain of the Year
People, Black Mirror

Most Likely To Become a Horror Icon
Blind Man, Don't Breathe. Runner up: Diana, Light's Out

Scariest Time in Theaters
Light's Out
Kill of the Year
Surfer #1, The Shallows

Most Disturbing Moment
The baster, Don't Breathe

Best Creature
The Monster

Geek Moment of the Year
Vader, Rogue One. Runner up: Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War
Worst Film, Low Budget
Antibirth. Runners up: Sun Choke, Bite

Worst Film, Big Budget
Independence Day Resurgence

Quote of the Year
"Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" - The VVitch
Runner up: "Vaginas are like coupon books for alcohol." - He Never Died

Career Resurgence
Ryan Reynolds. Hasn't carried a film since Green Lantern tanked, but Deadpool got made purely by his perseverance.      

Career Launch
 Anya Taylor-Joy. Came out of nowhere to deliver solid performances in The VVitch and Morgan, and is now killing it in Split.

Career Crash
Zach Snyder. I admit I am a fan, and I even enjoyed Batman v Superman, but there is no escaping the film's disappointing returns. WB already downgraded his role as overseer of the DCCU; if Wonder Woman and Justice League don't pass muster, he's done.

Self-serving Plug for Favorite Dark Discussions Episodes of 2016
Episode 217: JeruZalem - Weird, silly, absinthe enhanced night. Completely atypical of the show.
Episode 221: Speaking with actor Dan Lench of The Circle (also back for episode  258)
Episode 233: Isolation - 2005 movie about a killer cow fetus
Episode 237: Frankenhooker, recorded at Scare-A-Con
Episode 247: The Phantom from 20,000 Leagues, part of our "Fish Fest" month.
Episode 250: Psycho