Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (1998)

6. The Faculty

Following the surprise success of “Scream,” horror movie weren't just popular again, they were actively trendy. Just about every youth-orientated horror script in Hollywood was given the green-light in the months that followed. This new wave of hip horror had a definite formula. The casts were filled out with photogenic actors, usually from teen-targeted TV shows. The scripts were peppered with references to older films and the gore was generally kept low, so as not to offend the moral guardians too much. Miramax, the studio behind “Scream,” was especially eager to recreate that film's success. They dusted off “The Faculty,” a script that had been floating around for a while, and had “Scream-”scribe Kevin Williamson polish it. Lastly, Robert Rodriguez was brought in to direct, presumably because he owed Harvey Weinstein a favor. The film was moderately successful in its day but does it hold up?

Something strange is going on at Herrington High School. The teachers are starting to act a little unusual. They converse about secret things when no one is looking. Special immunizations are planned for the student body. Their behavior is somewhat synchronized, acting with less emotion. When an elderly teacher attacks someone in the shower, her body decaying, a group of students begin to suspect something is up. Photo-nerd Casey and popular girl Delilah hide in the teacher's lounge and discover the truth. Shape-shifting aliens have arrived on Earth and taken over the teachers' bodies, the first part of a global invasion. Teaming up with drug dealer Zeke, goth girl Stokey, jock Stan, and new girl Marybeth, the students try to stop the faculty before everyone is body-snatched.

“The Faculty” has a potentially really interesting premise. Setting an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-style alien invasion film inside a high school is a great idea. At what point in our lives do we feel the influence of peer pressure more acutely than high school? It's a time when any personality trait outside the norm is shunned, when people are asked to conform. Putting a “Body Snatchers” premise in that context could've been a new and exciting spin on things. “The Faculty,” however, is not nearly as clever or insightful as a movie would have to be to make any salient points. It hits the expected beats of the story and mostly takes the high school setting for granted.

Any point “The Faculty” could've made about high school conformity is undermined by the characters. They're all walking cliches. The film is basically “The Breakfast Club Vs. The Body Snatchers” and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Casey is a nerdy, would-be journalist, so of course he notices something is up before anyone else. Delilah is a rather indistinct mean girl stereotype. The movie thinks having her wear glasses is a subversion. Stokey probably gets it the worst, a brooding and sarcastic goth girl who pretends to be a lesbian so people won’t bother her. (Further making that plot point offensive is that Clea DuVall, an actual lesbian, was cast in the part.) Sometimes, the script tries to break the characters out of these predefined roles. Stan is tired of everyone assuming he’s a dumb jock, Zeke has a troubled past. But the film is mostly happy to play its high school cliches straight. It’s hard to make a point about teenage conformity when the characters conform to the well known stereotypes.

Another clever aspect of “The Faculty,” one that it does use fairly well, is the method of detecting and defeating the alien invasion. A special drug Zeke cooks up, a cocaine-like powder derived from caffeine tablets, causes the aliens to reveal their true form and die. The pseudo-scientific explanation provided for this is that the aliens need constant moisture to survive and that the drug dries them out. This seems more interesting once you remember “The Faculty” was written around 1990. That would've placed the original conception of the premise around the “Just Say No!” era. And there's something amusingly subversive about a film were teens save the day by doing drugs.

There’s a lot of little things that bug me about “The Faculty” but it’s ending probably bothers me the most. Ultimately, it is revealed that the body snatching is reversible. The people turned into alien monsters return to normal again. Which means there was almost no stakes at all to this story. Nobody died. Nobody's lives were really even at risk. The film hammers home how the “natural order” is restored by having all the high school activities – including bullying – resume. Also, in another borderline offensive homage to “The Breakfast Club,” Stokey abandons her goth fashion at the end for a cheerier disposition. So the heroes fight intergalactic conformity just to surrender to a more earthly type of conformity.

“Scream” and its followers distinguished themselves by being self-referential about the horror genre. By pointing out the rules or name-dropping established classics. “The Faculty” does a little too much of the latter. The film sometimes feels like a collection of scenes from better movies. Aside from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and Heinlein’s “The Puppet Masters,” both of which are mentioned by name, there are several other deliberate homages. Robert Patrick plays another relentless, inhuman attacker. A scene where the teens each sniff the drug, in order to prove none of them are aliens, is just the most blatant steal from “The Thing.” (There’s no attempt to replicate the tension John Carpenter created in that original moment, as this scene is partially played for laughs.) The finale, where the queen bee monster pursues the lone survivor through an empty building, recalls “Aliens.” There’s nothing wrong with paying homage to your influences, and I enjoy an in-joke as much as any horror fan, but “The Faculty” relies on this stuff too much.

As a special effects-driven horror picture, “The Faculty” had potential. There’s some cool body horror ideas here. Such as recently cleaved off fingers crawling along the floor, back to their master. Or the water sucking aliens standing in the rain, tentacles emerging from their faces to better suck up the moisture. These decent concepts falter in their execution, due to the film relying on CGI effects. The film came out in 1998 and CGI had a long way to go before it was believable. So cool ideas, like a decapitated head sprouting tentacles and crawling off, are undone by shaky effects. The film even pushes some unconvincing digital effects into our faces, with a close-up on a little amphibious alien.

The film saves its coolest effects for the latter half. The queen mesozoan emerges from the school swimming pool, as a large practical puppet from KNB. This proceeds the film’s final chase scene. The entire second half of “The Faculty” is composed of various chase scenes. Many of these verge towards the silly. Such as when the football team swarms a school bus. The only time “The Faculty’s” constant chase scenes come close to tense is at the end, with the darkened interiors of the high school are used to somewhat eerie effect. Even this is undone somewhat by the attacker being a naked teenage girl, which makes things more uncomfortable than creepy.

What does Robert Rodriguez bring to this material? His direction is not quite as frenetic as it usually. He focuses more on shadowy stillness. This produces some mildly spooky moment, such as when the teachers stand outside Casey’s house, watching from the shadow. Still, Rodriguez’ trademark fast paced editing puts in an appearance. Most obviously during the opening foot chase, the quick cutting emphasizing the frenzied attack. Sometimes, Rodriguez pushes his style to hammy heights. Such as when a distracting wipe-pan is utilized during another alien reveal.

The film does continue Rodriguez’ tendency towards strong cast. “The Faculty” is loaded with recognizable faces. There’s certainly some talent among the young heroes. Elijah Wood makes for a decently compelling hero as Casey, a plucky teen investigator that you enjoy watching. Josh Hartnett, wooden in so many films, is actually pretty decent as the brilliant-but-lazy Zeke. Hartnett’s teen heartthrob good looks blend well with the character’s rebellious nature. Though the writing lets her down, Clea DuVell does what she can to make Stokey a fully formed character. Laura Harris puts on a cartoonish Southern accent as Marybeth while Jordana Brewster is indistinctly bitchy as Delilah. Also, Usher got prominent placements on the posters, despite having a small role.

The adult roles are also packed with well known character actors. The aforementioned Robert Patrick gets to reprise his T-1000 act but is better when playing an asshole football coach. Famke Janssen plays Miss Burke, who goes from mousy to seductive after being body-snatched, a transition Janssen can play easily. Jon Stewart, of all people, appears as the nerdy science teacher. This works fine but once Stewart is revealed as an evil alien, he proves less convincing. Piper Laurie shows up, more as a homage to "Carrie" than anything else, while Christopher MacDonald is right in his wheelhouse as an asshole stepdad. Rodriguez even throws Salma Hayek into the movie, in the nothing part of the school nurse, presumably because he likes having her around.

A modest success in theaters, home video and cable is where “The Faculty” would really find its audience. This is a movie I can recall seeing on HBO, while also being occasionally discussed among my peers. Accordingly, the film has gathered a small cult following, leading to the occasional reappraisal. I can’t say I fall in with this crowd. While it has a number of neat ideas, “The Faculty” utilizes most of them in undercooked manners. It really does feel like a work-for-here job for Rodriguez. Oh yeah, and if it wasn’t more apparent how desperate the film was to capture both classical teenage rebellion and the then-modern youth market, the soundtrack features the likes of Creed, Shawn Mullins, and one-time only alt-rock supergroup Class of ‘99 covering Alice Cooper, Bowie, and Pink Floyd. Now that’s scary. [Grade: C]

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