Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Halloween

Here in Blighty, Halloween seems to be the runt of the litter when it comes to annual celebrations. Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day...they're shoo-ins for making lots of pounds from cards and gifts, but when it comes to Halloween, what is there? The local costume hire place may make a moderate sum: ditto the local farm shop with its vast quantities of putrefying pumpkins. But overall, Halloween isn't embraced as warmly over here as it is in other countries. Even the youth of today would rather be tweeting about school crushes or what happened in the latest dreary 'reality' TV tosh.

Nothing, no doubt. Totes unamazin'.

Halloween, the latest Buffy escapade, represents a purer age: in the days when recording your every move via phone or mini-computer wasn't mandatory, kids used to go out and have fun dressing up as ghouls or ghosts. It also sums up how much more Halloween seems to be represented in the US. Granted, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is tailor made for this sort of celebratory special, but then you also had special Halloween episodes of Friends, Frasier, Castle and of course, the many Simpsons Treehouse Of Horror anthologies.

Halloween is the first example of its kind in the Buffy and Angel series, and it also happens to be one of the finest (personally, Season Four's Fear Itself remains my favourite). What's more, after a run of mixed episodes, it finally lands Season Two its first monster hit. Halloween gets right everything that Reptile Boy got wrong. It's imaginative. It's well thought out. The characterisation is back to its best.

Halloween is based on this ghoulish day's raison d'etre of “Come as you aren't”. Buffy, Xander and Willow are turned momentarily into the people that they'd like to be, and its this simple premise that drives the episode forward. They say that the clothes maketh the man, and never a truer word was spoken.

It's a theme that sums up Season Two, especially. Angel's soulful brooding is effectively keeping a vicious killer trapped inside. What's more, it turns out that Giles' bumbling, foppish Watcher schtick conceals a darker side.

Enter Giles' nemesis, Ethan Rayne, who's now running his own costume shop. Quite how long Ethan has been in Sunnydale is never revealed. It's possible that he's been biding his time, snooping around Sunnydale High and its library – given that he runs a costume shop, it's feasible that he could have disguised himself as anyone from a school inspector through to a janitor through to a dinner lady. It's quite clear that Ethan's initial benevolence is just an act. Anyone who makes Buffy an offer that she can't refuse on the dress of her dreams cannot be that nice, especially in the vicinity of a Hellmouth.

Sure enough, it turns out that he's embroiled in dastardly deeds as he kneels before a statue of a Janus head in the centre of a candlelit circle. The moment that he wounds his hand for the sake of summoning dark forces is the moment that the viewer realises that this guy's a nutbar. Which of course is nothing compared to his 'armless acid trip in The Dark Age. It's a neat twist that he's an old acquaintance of Giles, and furthermore, it adds another dimension to the stuffy Watcher. “I know who you are, Rupert, and what you're capable of,” sneers Ethan, setting up a back story that's crying out to be mentioned. It won't be long before we find out what all that's about, but in the meantime, it allows Giles an opportunity for some un-Watcher like behaviour, including throwing punches and kicks to the groin. Which really isn't cricket.

Anthony Head gets the opportunity to inject some previously unseen grit into his performance of Giles, and it takes his already sterling portrayal of the Watcher into newer spheres. Threatening to steal the show though, is the late, great Robin Sachs, who combines subtle menace and humour to create a weaselly bad 'un. “Chunky and creamy,” he chuckles, as Giles makes his deductions on the divisive forces at work. “Oh no, that's peanut butter.” With such a turn of phrase, it was almost inevitable that he'd be back for a future rematch with his old buddy, Ripper.

The concept of the two sides of Janus is cleverly woven into the script. The Scooby Gang's choice of costume neatly sums up where they are in their lives. Buffy's choice of noblewoman on wheels costume is a result of her first misfired date with Angel. Arriving late and with bits of stray twig in her hair, the final insult for Buffy is seeing her beloved share a joke with his future employee, Cordelia. At this point in time, Cordelia still thinks of Angel as potential date material, to the point where she growls “When it comes to dating, I'M the Slayer” at a crestfallen Buffy. Wishing to get the heads up on her snarky rival, Buffy ensnares Willow into stealing Giles' diaries away from his office with the lamest of distractions. Still, Giles is successfully duped by Buffy's claims that Jenny regards him as a “babe”. Presumably, his Eyghon tattoo is Etruscan for “Sucker”.

So with every customer at Ethan's transformed into their costume form, Buffy becomes the damsel in distress in a neat role reversal. Mysteriously, the change also brings a new, lank hairdo that looks like she's been washing her hair with chip fat. This new, demure Buffy wheedles and cries throughout the crisis, annoying catty Cordelia and screaming at Angel's vampire face. It's a smart bit of foreshadowing as to what happens later in the season when Buffy becomes the victim when confronted with Angel's “real” self. Buffy needn't have worried though, given that Angel regards the women of the late 18th century as “incredibly dull” and “simpering morons”. Angel wants Buffy just the way she is, and as a result, she lands her first proper kiss.

If that scene promotes the message of “just be yourself”, then Xander's and Willow's personas promote another. It's curious to see how both characters gradually become more confident in the future. Prior to his costume change, Xander is bemoaning the missed opportunity to pummel new Lunkhead Of The Week, Larry, into fish paste. Underneath all the one-liners and the quips is one insecure guy, forever worrying that he'll never get the girl or be confident enough to deal with morons like Larry on his own terms. The soldier outfit allows Xander the opportunity to take charge and lead the battle against demons running amok in Sunnydale.

Likewise, Willow, in an out-of-character blink 'n' miss it outfit, gets the chance to take a proactive role in sorting out the problem. Appropriately, her ghost costume represents the shy personage who wouldn't have said boo to a goose in the first season. But from now on, Xander and Willow will both grow in confidence, managing to secure themselves partners (which they wouldn't have dreamt would happen one season ago) and take on a more assured stance in future crises. Willow emerges at the end with a confident spring in her step, marking a turning point for her character – she certainly gets the attention of Oz, who is left enchanted by this enigma.

It's good character progression that puts Halloween on a different planet from the previous episode. Newcomer Carl Ellsworth's script is bursting with fresh ideas and cracking dialogue, my favourite of which is probably Spike's gleeful appreciation of the chaos erupting around him: “Well, this is just...neat!”

Action-wise, it's a bit of a slow burner, with a mysterious build up to the frenzied pace of the third and fourth acts. Director Bruce Seth Green proves to be a capable choice of director, with some great, moody shots such as the shrouded back room of Ethan's costume shop, Buffy nearly coming to grief at the hands of Pirate Larry (love Christophe Beck's unnerving score for this scene) and the well lit close-up of Spike's leering visage as he goes in for the kill.

The presence of Spike does show him up as a bit of an easily defeated goon, however. He's bragged about killing Slayers in the past, so you would have thought that killing Buffy would be as easy as counting to three. And yet, for some reason, Spike makes a complete ready meal of accomplishing his mission, which is ridiculous, given that Buffy's temporarily helpless state should make this easier than usual. Good thing he's got enough wisecracks to fall back on, otherwise he'd be as useless as The Annoying One.

No other major irritants, although Cordelia is a walking textbook for outdated teen jargon. “Get with the programme!”, “What's that riff?”, “What's your deal? Take a pill!” Even Ethan's caught this bug, with a hoary old quip of “Showtime!”, possibly one of the most irritating catchphrases in popular culture.

Otherwise, Halloween sees Buffy The Vampire Slayer back on form. It's a good example of how it mixes all the right elements together to form an intoxicating brew of excitement, horror, drama and comedy. It's not that often that you'd get a programme that one minute, turns innocent kids into evil devil spawn and the next minute, has Giles hilariously spluttering his well-ordered rack of cards into the air when a ghostly Willow walks through the wall.

A great episode, and one that starts a run of three top quality Buffy stories.