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Movie Reviews : ‘Buffy’s’ Gnarly Date With Destiny

TIMES FILM CRITIC

If the undead invaded a Southern California high school, would anybody notice? Are questions of life and death more important than cheerleading practice? Can an airhead save the world? And can a film called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” be as amusing as its title?

Fortunately, the answer to all of the above is a cheerful if guarded yes. “Buffy” (citywide) may not make a believer out of Bela Lugosi, but it is a light and diverting romantic comedy that is as high-spirited, undeniably silly and not particularly deep as its teen-age protagonist. And, in a summer where so much of the nominal entertainment feels top-heavy and bloated, it has the additional virtue of not taking itself very seriously at all.

Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui from an affably knowing script by Joss Whedon, Buffy starts with a mock-historic prologue that posits an intriguing bit of vampire lore. Each generation, it seems, has its own designated vampire slayer, a nubile young woman, ignorant of her task, who needs to be initiated into the mysteries of stake placement and the like by the guardian of those eternal secrets, the Watcher.

Certainly no one could be more ignorant than born-to-shop Buffy (Kristy Swanson), an ace cheerleader for Hemery High whose goal in life, as far as she has one, is to “marry Christian Slater and die.” With a gang of giggling girlfriends, a self-absorbed mom (an amusing bit by Candy Clark) and a nonchalant boyfriend, Buffy is the heartiest partier around.

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Into her life, and quite literally into her locker room, comes Merrick, the Watcher (Donald Sutherland). He wants to tell Buffy about her birthright, which to her sounds like “a trust fund or something.” Can she accompany him to the graveyard for a demonstration? “On a school night?” she asks, aghast.

The process of watching Buffy reluctantly accept her heritage and then put it to good use against a legion of bloodsuckers led by Amilyn (Paul Reubens) and Lothos (Rutger Hauer) is hardly an unexpected diversion, and though “Vampire Slayer” bears a family resemblance to “Heathers,” it does not have the true bite of the original. But the film’s 86 PG-13 minutes pass with a welcome lightness because everything that could go right about this kind of a venture did.

Screenwriter Whedon has not only done the clever job of genre-splicing you would expect from a third-generation comedy writer (his dad wrote for “The Golden Girls,” his grandfather for Donna Reed and Dick Van Dyke), but has also provided amusing Valley-speak dialogue for Buffy and her chums, not to mention some inspired cameos like a basketball coach who tells his charges to tell themselves, “I am a person; I deserve the ball.”

Actress Kristy Swanson, last seen in “Hot Shots!,” provides the ideal combination of energy and comic disdain that characterize a most unlikely savior. Helping her out is Sutherland’s grave Watcher and Luke Perry, in his first post-"Beverly Hills, 90210" role, as the only guy with guts enough to take Buff seriously. Finally, director Kuzui, whose previous “Tokyo Pop” was well-received, sets just the right tone and knows how to keep things pleasantly moving. While it would be a mistake to oversell “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the sad and/or happy truth is that you could do worse on a warm summer night. A lot worse.

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‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Kristy Swanson: Buffy

Luke Perry: Pike

Donald Sutherland: Merrick

Paul Reubens: Amilyn

Rutger Hauer: Lothos

A Sandollar/Kuzui Enterprises production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui. Producers Kaz Kazui and Howard Rosenman. Executive producers Sandy Gallin, Carol Baum, Fran Rubel Kuzui. Screenplay Joss Whedon. Cinematographer James Hayman. Editors Camilla Toniolo, Jill Savitt. Costumes Marie France. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Lawrence Miller. Art director James Barrows, Randy Moore. Set decorator Claire Bowin. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.

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