The Faculty (1998)
The Faculty was Robert Rodriguez's foray into the world of mainstream horror movies, working alongside Scream writer Kevin Williamson. While its plot can be loosely described as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the self-aware style of Scream," stylistically it's a lot closer to From Dusk Till Dawn, Rodriguez's collaboration with Quentin Tarantino about outlaws vs. vampires in a Mexican road house. That is to say, while it's not a particularly scary film (unless you're grossed out by body-horror), it is smart, fast-paced, action-packed, and a very good time in front of the TV with buddies and a bag of tortilla chips.
The plot: six students in a suburban Ohio high school learn that their teachers are being taken over by a malicious force straight out of an old alien invasion movie. They band together and, with the help of the resident "bad boy" and his meth lab (his drugs are lethal to the alien parasites), fight to take back their school and save the world. While less overtly comedic than Scream was (Williamson's work was largely dialogue and characters; two other people came up with the story), this film is still packed with references to classic sci-fi and horror films, from some of the characters' names (Mr. Furlong, anyone?) to discussions of whether or not the maker of Independence Day was an alien infiltrator to at least two scenes that directly homage The Thing. I first watched this years ago, before I knew what any of those films were; watching the film again nowadays, spotting all of those references, was a treat. I also enjoyed the metaphor of the alien-brainwashed students representing peer pressure and the desire to fit in, a theme that, as anyone who's watched the news or kept up with pop culture in the last few years will know, resonates even more now than it did in 1998. It didn't quite go as deep with those themes as I would have liked, especially comparing it to the various versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and their messages about communism, McCarthyism, and urban alienation, but this film still has a good-sized brain in its head.
I also loved the cast here, though part of that was, admittedly, do to the fact that watching this film is like a giant game of "spot the people who became really famous afterward." Seriously, this film has a ridiculous number of actors who went on to far bigger and better things. The science teacher? Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. The catty cheerleader? Jordana Brewster, aka Mia Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. The nerdy kid? Elijah Wood. The drug dealer? Josh Hartnett. That's on top of already-established actors like Piper Laurie, Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, and Rodriguez regular Salma Hayek. Even R&B singer Usher has a small role as the football team captain. Seeing so many big names, from both then and now, in a fairly low-budget teen horror movie was crazy in the best possible way. And they are all great here. The teens all felt like teens, the actors giving their stereotypical characters (the goth chick, the jock, etc.) depth and making them feel real, while the adults are all properly menacing. Whether it was Bebe Neuwirth as the wicked principal, Piper Laurie channeling a bit of Margaret White from Carrie as the music teacher, or Robert Patrick as the oddly mellow football coach, they were all quite scary on screen.
The direction by Robert Rodriguez is both what makes this film so watchable and the source of one of my biggest problems with it. It's during this film's more action-packed moments that it works best. Rodriguez knows his action, and here we get chases, standoffs, and gory "money shots" that would've had me on the edge of my seat if I hadn't been watching this in a sofa. I especially liked the decision to use practical effects when possible, especially for the big ugly alien monster at the end. In other places, the film employs a mix of practical and CGI effects that looks amazing for a film shot on just $15 million. On the other hand, when this film is trying to be legitimately scary, it loses steam quickly. Rodriguez's visceral directing style just isn't suited for a story that relies mainly on paranoia to generate its frights. The score here (by Marco Beltrami, who also did the music for Scream) is overbearing, telegraphing many scary moments and sucking the tension right out of them. This would've worked great for an action film, but in a horror film, not so much. Not helping on the terror front is the fact that the game of "who's the head alien?" is somewhat undone by the fact that two of the lead "suspects", the principal and the football coach, are shown in the opening scenes of the movie as normal human beings (and in the principal's case, running from and then getting possessed by the aliens). While the reveal of just who the head alien actually was did come as a surprise, overall The Faculty does a poor job of capturing the feeling of paranoia that it wanted me to experience.
Score: 3 out of 5
I was wavering on whether or not to give this a 3 or a 4, but decided that nostalgia may have clouded my judgment a bit (this was one of the first horror movies I'd ever seen), so I went with a 3 to be safe. Robert Rodriguez wasn't the best choice to direct something like this, but he and everyone else involved still turned in a solid film regardless. This is the quintessential "weekend movie", a campy and fun thriller that's great to throw in when you have friends over or nothing better to do. It's hardly revolutionary, but it doesn't have any illusions of being so. It's easily one of the better films to come out of the late '90s teen horror boom.