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'Buffy' is enjoyable, but 'the Vampire Slayer' is toothless


"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a title in search of a movie.

But the film is, at least for an hour or so, so wondrously effervescent and its young star is such a complete charmer that it's hard to sit there without feeling those irritating pangs of warmth and pleasure that signify you are having a good time.

Kristy Swanson plays Buffy of that cultural mecca of strip malls, doughnut shoppes and GAP stores called the San Fernando Valley. She is not just from the Valley or of the Valley, she is the Valley: She's the Valleygeist, beautiful, shallow, casually cruel, obscenely vacuous. In Valleyspeak, that incisive lyricism of blase self-adoration, she launches bolts of utter contempt to destroy all that comes before her and is not worthy; in other words, everything. As you can see, there's a lot to like in this young woman.

But Buffy, so busy with cheerleading, planning the big dance and hanging out with her boyfriend, is to learn that she's special not because she's beautiful and young but because she descended from a long breed of vampire killers, the anointed legion selected to do battle against the avatars of the undead, those chalky goblins who subsist on a nightly plasma aperitif and fear three things: wooden stakes, cruci

fixes and orthodontics. So you get the picture: It's "Heathers" with bloodsucking.

For reasons that interest nobody associated with the movie, not even the caterer or the pet wrangler, two vampires -- Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, and the original Dutch man-mountain himself, Rutger Hauer -- have come to the Valley to recruit fresh blood.

This involves the arcane concepts of "killing" and "enslaving" victims, but the movie treats such doings more as a lifestyle choice than an issue of morality.

Anyway, as a somewhat glum Donald Sutherland instructs Buffy, it's time now to put aside childish things and take up really childish things -- kung fu, advance stakesmanship. Thus the movie ultimately becomes "Alien 2" played for fewer and fewer laughs: a bug hunt. As it progresses, two unfortunate truths become evident.

The first is that Swanson, so completely bewitching when she's selfish and self-absorbed, becomes somewhat drab as a conventional nice girl. As her personality modulates, the movie loses the considerable zing it had acquired from her viciousness. And second, it also becomes clear that there's really no story at all going on under all the attitude and the jazzy pyrotechnics and the stunts. It would have helped if screenwriter Joss Whedon had provided some mission or caper for the vampires that would unify the story instead of simple generic vampiring that has no inherent sense of drama.

And then there's Luke Perry. It's amusing to see the stereotypes reversed: He's the "plain boy" who, once he changes his hair, is revealed to be a total studmuffin. But he's really not a very interesting presence; Swanson is far more dynamic and appealing in the film than poor Luke.

"Buffy" doesn't have brains or a story or even an ending -- but it's got spunk. And how.

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

Starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry.

Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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