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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : <i> Eeeeyew</i> . . . <i> Gross. </i> Where’s My Wooden Stake? : ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ turns the table on teen horror films, with a heroic damsel, a hunk in distress and, says the director, some serious issues that go for the jugular

<i> Joe Rhodes is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles</i> .

The Hemery High School prom is going badly. For one thing, the gym resembles the aftermath of a Nirvana video. The place is littered with fallen streamers, overturned tables and broken punch bowls, not to mention the standard assortment of teen-age party debris--smashed corn chips, trampled paper flowers, shredded banners that once said, “Hug the World.” And then there’s the gaping hole in the wall caused by . . . marauding vampires.

They’re everywhere. Gray-skinned, bat-eared, fang-toothed. The adolescent undead, in search of blood and a girl named Buffy. And Lothos, their leader, the vampire king who just blew through the wall, is redefining what it means to crash a party.

“I’ll have you opened and split like rotted fruit,” he says to the stunned members of the senior class, whose biggest fear until this moment had been whether they’d perspired too much during a slow dance.

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“I’ll send you screaming to the pits of hell,” Lothos promises, brandishing a sword and an evil grin. He makes a noise like a man gargling thumbtacks, grasps the hem of his black cape and, taking a step toward the camera says, “Trust me.”

He says it in a way that manages to be both frightening and extremely silly, which is exactly what Fran Rubel Kuzui, the director of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” had in mind.

“Two thumbs up!” she shouts gleefully from behind the video monitor where she’s been watching the scene unfold. Even as Rutger Hauer, playing Lothos, returns to his mark, preparing to threaten the seniors of Hemery High once more, Kuzui is buzzing about the set (constructed inside a Santa Monica warehouse) chatting with visitors, engaging in small talk with the crew, acting more like an excited onlooker than the person who’s running the show.

One of the assistant directors calls out for quiet on the set. It takes a moment to realize that the person the crew is trying to get quiet is, in fact, Kuzui.

“Excuse me,” she says, promising a visitor that she’ll be right back. “But I guess I’d better watch this scene.”

The cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an odd assortment of actors, all of them drawn to a script by 27-year-old first-time screenwriter Joss Whedon.

“When I first agreed to do this,” says Donald Sutherland, who plays Merrick, the mysterious figure who must instruct teen-ager Buffy in the ancient art of vampire slaying, “I couldn’t even say the title out loud.

“I had dinner one night with Roland Joffe and Jake Eberts,” he recalled, referring to the director and producer of the current “City of Joy,” “and Jake said, ‘What are you working on?’ And I said, ‘Uh, a film for Fox.’ ‘What film?’ ‘Fran Kuzui’s new picture.’ ‘Well, what’s it called?’ I finally had to write it down on a piece of paper and hand it to them. They fell on the floor, laughing.”

Whedon, who had just left the writing staff of TV’s “Roseanne” when he wrote the script two years ago, describes it as a response to all the horror movies he had seen “where some blond girl walks into a dark room and gets killed. So I decided to make a movie where a blond girl walks into a dark room and instead kicks butt.”

He came up with the tale of Buffy, who is forced to accept the fact that instead of spending her life hanging out at the mall, buying lip gloss and diet drinks, she is destined to slay vampires. Besides Sutherland, Hauer and 22-year-old Kristy Swanson in the title role, “Buffy” also stars Paul Reubens (in his first significant post-Pee-wee Herman appearance) and “Beverly Hills, 90210" heartthrob Luke Perry, making his feature film debut.

“Well, it makes for an interesting stew,” Kuzui says, when asked how she’s coping with such a disparate troupe in this, her second film. (The first was 1988’s “Tokyo Pop.”)

When Howard Rosenman of Sandollar Productions first showed the “Buffy” script to Kuzui a year ago, it was envisioned as a small, quirky independent film. The idea was that Kaz Kuzui, the director’s husband and the producer of “Tokyo Pop,” would produce the film and finance it with a small pool of Japanese investors. But, as they cast the movie and marketable names like Sutherland and Perry agreed to take part, 20th Century Fox acquired the project.

Although the production budget is still less than $10 million, Fox is planning to give “Buffy” a big promotional push, including, in the weeks before its July 31 release, an extensive billboard marketing campaign, not unlike the outdoor marketing blitz that preceded “White Men Can’t Jump” recently. The “Buffy” billboards will feature a pair of legs in a cheerleader’s skirt and the tag line “She Knows a Sucker When She Sees One.”

Marketing campaigns aside, much of the movie’s pre-release buzz has centered on the ticket-buying potential of Perry’s “90210" fans and the curiosity surrounding Reubens.

“I think Paul and I both came to this thing with something to prove,” says Perry, who refers to his character, Pike, Buffy’s love interest, as “the movie’s ‘damsel’ in distress.”

“Buffy’s the one who’s always having to save him, which is a nice change from the way these movies usually work,” Perry says. “For me, I wanted to prove that I can do more than what I get to do on ‘90210,’ where my role is basically a dramatic one. There’s a real goofy side to me, and I like to get that out once in a while.

“And I think Paul wanted to prove that, whatever your preconceptions about him might be, he is someone who’s truly funny and creative and talented.”

It was Fran Kuzui’s idea to offer the part of Amilyn, Lothos’ sadistic sidekick, to Reubens. Although Joan Chen had originally been cast in the role, Kuzui says she had always wanted Reubens but never said anything because “it was such a far-out idea.” But, just before filming began in late February, Chen dropped out and Kuzui immediately suggested Reubens.

“The thing that’s great about directing a vampire movie,” she says, “is that it lets you create your own world. And talk about someone who creates their own world--Paul is somebody who created one of the most unique and, to me, seriously important pop characters ever. Pee-wee Herman is right up there with Mickey Mouse as far as I’m concerned. So I was really interested in what he could do with a character like Amilyn.”

There is no trace of Pee-wee in Reubens’ performance. With a goatee and wolfish hair, Reubens plays Amilyn with a rasp-voiced menacing snarl. “Paul really chose to be a bad guy in this,” Kuzui says. “We decided that Paul would play the evil guy and Rutger would play the scary guy. And there’s a big distinction, because usually what you’re scared of is not the real evil.”

Kuzui’s unbridled admiration for Reubens is just one example of why Sandollar’s Rosenman refers to the filmmaker as “a pop-culture sponge,” a woman fascinated with “the stuff of the moment,” whether it’s graffiti art, what’s new on MTV or who happens to be this week’s Sexiest Man Alive.

You wouldn’t know it to look at her. Kuzui doesn’t wear leather or oversize backward baseball jerseys. She looks, instead, like someone you might meet thumbing through tabloids at the grocery store. Her sandy hair is Midwestern-housewife short. She wears jeans, no-frills blouses, plain-frame eyeglasses and little makeup.

With a master’s degree in film from New York University, Kuzui, now 47, spent years living in Greenwich Village hanging out with performance artists and painters (Keith Haring among them). Long before she became a director, she worked as a production manager for PBS and then a script supervisor for feature films--which is how, in 1977, she met Kaz Kuzui, then a Japanese assistant director working in America for the first time.

“I didn’t know anything about Japan when I met him,” she says. “I hadn’t even read ‘Shogun.’ ”

They married a year later and together formed Kuzui Enterprises, a distribution company that introduced Japanese audiences to independent American films by directors such as David Lynch, Penelope Spheeris and Jonathan Demme. Even as they direct and produce films together, the Kuzuis continue to run the distribution company.

Fran Kuzui, now based in Los Angeles, spent the ‘80s living in two places--Tokyo and New York--and found herself fascinated with the pop-cultural quirks of both societies. This led her to write and direct “Tokyo Pop,” the story of an aspiring New York rock singer who, unable to get a break in her hometown, moves to Japan, where she discovers that for all the similarities--blue jeans, rock ‘n’ roll, a McDonald’s seemingly on every corner--there are differences she will never fully comprehend.

Even though it is aimed at a younger, more mainstream audience, Kuzui believes that “Buffy” deals with some of the same issues as “Tokyo Pop,” particularly the importance of finding out who you are and what your place is in the world. On one level, Kuzui knows she is making a movie that can be taken as nothing more than mindless summer entertainment, “Wayne’s World” with teeth. This is a script, after all, that is loaded with lines like “God, take a chill lozenge” and “Some plague we’re having, huh?”

But, for anyone who cares to look closer, there is more to “Buffy” than vampires and laughs.

“Here’s a girl, a high school cheerleader, who’s suddenly being told that she’s part of something else,” Kuzui says. “And I think all of us, when we’re kids, know we’re part of something , and the process of being an adult is finding the something that you’re a part of. This is a story about a girl--and I think it’s very important that it’s a girl--finding out how powerful she really is.

“Don’t tell anybody at Fox,” Kuzui says, “but this is a very serious movie.”

It is the final week of shooting, the climactic prom night confrontation still to be filmed, and a certain giddiness, fueled by nervous exhaustion, has overtaken the “Buffy” cast and crew, after a stretch of 29 straight night shoots.

“It’s one of the unwritten rules of Hollywood,” Kuzui says, remarking on the stress of working nearly a month without seeing daylight. “Never take a movie with Vampire in the title.”

Rehearsals, at this point, move at a dopey, half-speed pace, the actors delivering lines that have nothing to do with the script.

“Hey, Buffy,” Perry, devoid of his famous sideburns, shouts as he good-foots onto the gymnasium set, hands on his hips, releasing a James Brown yowl. “Watch me dance.” Kristy Swanson looks at him like he’s crazy and then realizes she’s got problems of her own. Her detachable crinoline prom dress (easily removed to facilitate slaying vampires) has a spot on it, apparently caused by her having knelt a little too close to one of the slashed-up seniors.

“Did you get blood on your dress?” Perry asks, following her off camera, where a wardrobe assistant is waiting with a washcloth. “Well, when you’re making a vampire movie, that’s gonna be one of the hazards.”

More than anyone (with the possible exception of Kuzui, who continues to chat up a storm between every shot), Perry seems to be having the time of his life. In the midst of a year in which he’s been mobbed by teen-age girls in shopping malls and tagged (much to his chagrin) as the latest version of “the next James Dean,” he clearly enjoys the chance to work with actors like Sutherland and Hauer, to be somebody other than Dylan McKay, his “90210" character. Not that he’s complaining about fame.

“A lot of people ask me if it’s hard being so identifiable,” he says, retiring to his trailer for a lunch break, where he is met by a stack of photographs someone has asked him to sign. “It was a helluva lot harder being completely anonymous and trying to get a job.”

Still, there have been trying moments. To keep overzealous fans from tracking his every move, Perry is listed on the cast call sheet only as “Chet.” (Reubens also has a call sheet alias: “Beau Hunkus.”) On the first day of location shooting, Perry says, “about 300 people showed up, mostly screaming girls. Rutger and Donald weren’t working that day, and I was so glad, because I didn’t want these two well-established, respected actors to walk on the set and think, ‘Oh no, we’re making a movie with Frankie Avalon.’ ”

The cameras, finally, are ready to roll, Perry cued for his entrances, Swanson ready to kneel by the victim and face her vampire-slaying destiny. The assistant directors yell, “Quiet on the set,” and, as usual, look directly at Fran Kuzui. And she, as usual, smiles.


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