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Horror in the Hallways

March 09, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Going to high school can be a terrifying experience. You have to endure snobby cliques and severe peer pressure. To make matters worse, you often feel too fat, awkward or geeky to ever fit in.

But the new WB thriller-comedy "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" goes even further, turning high school into a veritable chamber of horrors that could best be described as "The X-Files" meets "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

In one episode, a cheerleader candidate uses witchcraft to insure herself a place on the squad. In another installment, a group of bullies become infected with the spirit of hyenas and begin devouring people. And one girl discovers the evil pitfalls of Internet dating when the man of her dreams turns out to be a 200-year-old demon.

Joss Whedon, the creator and executive producer of "Buffy," vividly recalls his high school experiences, and, not surprisingly, says they weren't great. "Terrible would be a word I would use" to describe them, he says. And he reports that he's not alone: "Every time [one of our writers] creates an evil character, I say, 'Where did you get the name?' And they say, 'It was the guy who picked on me.' "

"Buffy," based on the 1992 film of the same name, follows the adventures of a 16-year-old student (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who is a "Slayer"--a person who is gifted with the talents, strength and skill to hunt and destroy vampires and other ghouls. And like any good slayer, she carries holy water, a crucifix and a wooden stake in her purse.

"I decided to do a horror movie every week set in a high school," explains Whedon, who wrote the original "Buffy." His screen credits also include "Twister," "Speed" and "Toy Story."

"In the movie, the horror didn't come from high school," he says. "It just happened there. In the series, hopefully, most of the episodes will reflect a grotesque parody of actual high school experiences."

"What makes the situations so horrific," says Gellar, "is that Joss bases them on reality. We have just taken real-life situations and put them on a grander or a more horror-level scale. But they are all situations we have faced, like the cheerleading episode. It's about a girl who just wants to please her mother and her mother is trying to live vicariously through her daughter. They are all situations that we have experienced."

Although there will be an assortment of supernatural villains, Buffy will, of course, be doing battle on a regular basis with vampires. "The vampires for us are sort of the aliens of 'The X-Files,' " says Whedon. "They sort of inform everything that happens."

Not only is the series different from the movie, so are the characters. "Buffy was was sort of ignorant," says Whedon of the big-screen Buffy, who was played by Kristy Swanson.

"She was a little vapid,' " adds Gellar. "This Buffy may not be book smart, but she's street smart. She's quirky. She's offbeat versus dumb."

Alyson Hannigan co-stars as Buffy's best friend, Willow, a shy, bookish girl who is a social outcast. Nicholas Brendon plays her other companion, Xander. Anthony Stewart Head, best known as the Taster's Choice coffee guy, plays Giles, a middle-aged librarian who secretly supervises Buffy's clandestine activities.

Gellar, who won a daytime Emmy for her work on ABC's "All My Children," is the perfect Buffy, says Whedon. "I don't think the show would exist without her. I can't imagine we would have filmed it without her."

Gellar, he says, is "the best actress I have ever worked with in my life. It also helps that she's beautiful and can do Tae Kwon Do. She's just extraordinary and incredibly professional."

She puts her martial arts skill to good use in the series. "I do a good deal of the kicking and the punching that you see; the things I can do without putting the show in jeopardy, I will do. It's the best part [of doing the series]. In the first episode, I beat up a vampire who has got to be 6-foot-4. I am, like, 100 pounds and 5-foot-2. It's extremely empowering."

Whedon acknowledges that "Buffy" is a difficult show to produce because of the special effects, makeup and stunts. "We have a limited amount of time and money," he says. "We shoot [each episode] in eight days and it's hard to get it all in."

But, he adds, the series isn't just about special effects. "When we have needed them we have used them," he says, "but it's never about them. The problem you have most on this is grounding it emotionally. I'm constantly going on about that. We are much more interested in no special effect than a special effect that's going to take over the scenes."

Whedon says he's constantly telling the actors playing the villains: "Don't walk like a vampire. Walk like a guy who is tougher than the other guys around him. Don't hiss and snarl and make a big, dumb show."

Coming from primarily a film background, Whedon finds the pace of television insane, but loves the fact that he's making a "little independent film" each week.

"It's so creative and fun to let these characters live and see where they take you. The characters themselves start to inform you what's going to happen. That's something you can't really do in a movie."

Whedon hopes "Buffy" will attract the same audience as Fox's "The Simpsons."

"But I'm hoping that there is something anybody can cull from it. Hopefully, the adult characters aren't complete buffoons. People remember high school. That doesn't go away."

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on WB with a two-hour episode; it moves to its regular time period, Mondays at 9 p.m., on March 17.

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