Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
I am still working my way through only the one show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. During one commercial break, the show’s star reappeared, present day, in a commercial for dishwasher liquid with her real-life husband. It felt eerie—yet another quick visit to her IMDB page shows that they co-star as Fred and Daphne in the Scooby-Doo live-action films together—in fact, the films’ production exactly spans their dating, engagement, and early married life. (It was also filmed concurrently with the Buffy season I’m watching.) I remembered how Buffy and her friends refer to themselves as the “Scooby-Gang,” investigating mysteries and defeating monsters in their own way. The casting is perfect regardless, but I like thinking these references were arranged incredibly self-consciously. I already knew I was going to go to great pains to relate these two characters and series.
I’ve written before about how Buffy is so delightful because every problem or metaphor is actually a literal demon. In season five, Buffy becomes entangled with a government initiative tasked with neutralizing the demonic forces previously known only to her circle of friends. At first, it’s refreshing to have military backup. However, their methods are not like Buffy’s library study sessions on the ancient occult. Lore or motivation is beside the point—demons’ evil is inherent. The government is only studying the demons, in prison cells and on operating tables, in order to better defeat them. It’s a worldview too convenient for Buffy and the Scooby-Gang, who develop deep relationships with complicated vampires, witches, and werewolves, all while fighting the deeper, dark forces themselves. They know the government initiative isn’t wrong: the demons are hell-bent on power and destruction for its own sake, but with motivations that often leave them with vulnerability or nuance.
The handful of original Scooby-Doo cartoons I found are 22-minute procedurals with a surprisingly intricate structure that’s so consistent it’s practically a liturgy:
- The Scooby Gang stumbles upon a mystery with a variety of human suspects, but also rumors of an inexplicable, supernatural monster!
- The team explains away the monster myth. They form a plan to catch the perpetrator, which goes horribly wrong:
- Velma loses her glasses and/or says “Jinkies.”
- Fred and/or Daphne encounter the monster and realize their explanation doesn’t hold up. (THE MONSTER IS REAL.)
- Shaggy and Scooby get chased by the monster in a montage of visual gags and Looney Toon physics, which ends with the monster exhausted and collapsed.
- The villain is unmasked as everyone gasps, and the monster is explained away again.
The moment where no one can explain the monster is crucial to the payoff—inexplicable, supernatural evil must remain forever believable, yet disprovable. It’s a thin line for a kids’ show to ride, and a fun game to always win.
The 2002 Scooby-Doo live-action movie meets in the middle of the gang’s usual scientific approach and the supernatural. The cold open scene is just a classic cartoon done in live-action. The gang is chased by a flying ghost clown that breathes fire, they fumble their plot to catch him, Shaggy and Scooby do some stunts and knock him out anyway. The monster is revealed to be another bitter old man; the flying and fire were a hydrogen suit.
But the rest of the film differs. A suspicious tycoon played by Mr. Bean runs a spooky castle theme park that’s leaving spring-breaking teenagers zombified. Okay, the plot doesn’t matter, but in the end, the perpetrator is revealed, according to procedure, to be Scooby’s nephew Scrappy-Doo, exacting revenge for being kicked out of the gang.
However, the monsters that the gang fight in the hotel bar aren’t disguises. They’re actual supernatural creatures summoned by Scrappy. His android suit runs on actual souls sucked up from a cauldron. At one point, SoCal soft rock band Sugar Ray really gets possessed. Scrappy’s mischief employs sanity-shattering supernatural powers, confirming the dread the gang typically feels mid-procedural when they’ve exhausted scientific possibilities. The monsters seem so real, except now they are.
But it’s still Scooby-Doo, because Scrappy is still just a villain in a costume. There’s no real demons, inherent evil incarnate as defined by the government initiative in Buffy. It’s just people with tools, trying to get their way through fear. Because in Scooby-Doo, evil incarnate can’t exist, only villainous people do. Still, there has to be a moment where it almost could. Whereas in Buffy by now, regular people barely appear—almost everyone has some dark ability, curse, or tie. Still, both Buffy and Daphne’s mystery work is more about the motivations behind the monster, however real the evil is.
Buffy is light on backstory and lore, but it implies Buffy was once a normal high schooler before the role of Slayer was thrust upon her. It’s fun to have an image of Daphne as that pre-Slayer Buffy, with a different view of evil’s existence. I’ll have to see if that holds up in the Scooby-Doo sequel—the subtitle is “Monsters Unleashed.”