For a generation, “Beverly Hills 90210” cemented Luke Perry’s legacy as he redefined bad-boy archetypes with his portrayal of iconic sensitive teen Dylan McKay. In the years that followed, his career ranged from guest work on HBO’s “Oz,” to regular self-parody, to seemingly coming full circle as the father of a teenager on The CW’s “Riverdale.”
But one of his most important roles was came in a 1992 film that helped redefine a genre. Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui and written by Joss Whedon, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is not remembered as a classic, for good reason. Much of the action is clumsy both in its choreography and its direction, no one in the cast seems to agree as to what kind of movie they’re making, Donald Sutherland is literally just making up his own dialogue, and the tone veers from self-serious drama to wild camp.
When Whedon later got the opportunity to take his original concept and craft some truly groundbreaking television, it was apparent just how badly Kuzui misinterpreted his script. Nevertheless, the film was a slumber-party favorite for girls of a certain age, thanks to its bloodless PG-13 violence and muted sexuality.
And it gave us Buffy’s paramour, Pike. As the romantic interest for Buffy, Perry’s character rewrites romantic-comedy history as the male lead who’s not the film’s lead, a man who changes himself to better serve his beloved, and doesn’t feel threatened by her strength.
When we first meet him, Pike is drunk, broke, and bumming around Los Angeles with his best friend Benny (David Arquette). Then he sees cheerleader-turned-slayer Buffy (Kristy Swanson) laying waste to the vampires and commits himself to aiding her quest. (He even shaves!)
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Unlike many female action leads, Buffy isn’t a trauma victim, or on a revenge quest; she’s fighting vampires because that’s her ancient calling. These abilities don’t emasculate Pike; in fact, they inspire him to support her fight. Pike wasn’t a supposed “nice guy” who resents the female hero’s powers (not to subtweet Xander Harris, but…); he likes her because of her strength, not in spite of it. He might show up in a bad-boy leather jacket to the school dance — and he lends it to her, just before she goes to slay the bad guys.
At this point in film history, Buffy was not the first notable female character to lead an action or horror film. But Sarah Conner’s only love died tragically, and Ellen Ripley was too busy trying to survive alien attacks to worry about romance. Most importantly, both “Alien”/”Aliens” and “The Terminator” films were rated R — the target audience was not young women. “Buffy,” for the right age group, provided both an inspirational character as well as a romantic relationship that, for the time, was relatively empowering.
Just look at the poster for the film:
Looking back 27 years ago, positioning the young male lead — especially one who happened to be burning up television screens — as the supportive sidekick to an ass-kicking female hero seems downright revolutionary, and Perry’s innate decency and good humor made Pike believable in the role. When Pike and Buffy dance together, the dialogue captures a relationship between equals, the sort of power balance that even today feels like a rarity on screen:
“Suppose you want to lead?” he says.
“No,” she replies.
“Me either,” he says, and together, they start to sway.
“This is a good thing,” she says.
In life, everyone gets multiple opportunities to make an impression on the world. Luke Perry made use of his.