The Faculty (1998)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez


The Faculty is a self-aware horror-comedy that acknowledges its influences by continually name-dropping Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though it is really a blend of Dazed and Confused (1993) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).  This effort to remix multiple genres might extend to Robert Rodriguez’ career as a whole, though such a thought is only a preliminary one, a hypothesis, if you will.

Rodriguez’ first movie was a $7,000 film intended to go into the straight to video Spanish market.  That film, El Mariachi blew up and was distributed by Columbia, reaching an audience far beyond what Rodriguez himself ever imagined.  It’s a campy story about a musician in a small border town who is mistaken for a ruthless killer.  The nature of the story is as sensational as something you might find in a soap opera, but it creates the template within which Rodriguez could play around with genre and various action set pieces.  The movie was about the energy that went into making it more than the story itself, particularly considering Rodriguez never intended for the movie to reach a mass audience.

The Faculty is made with a similar spirit.  The concept is straight out of the horror genre, but by placing the action almost exclusively within a high school, he turns it into comedy.  If The Thing tried to make you laugh and squirm, The Faculty just tries to make you laugh.

After a brief, foreboding prologue, we are introduced to the school and various characters with music by The Offspring, immediately iconographic of the setting, the late 90s.  Each character is introduced in a small vignette with a freeze frame announcing their name, and you could be mistaken for thinking this an American Pie, knock off.

The two genres put in a blender here are so far apart, yet this introduction establishes that the characters are as important as the sensational plot elements.  The characters in The Thing, other than Kurt Russell, are extremely forgettable.  They are sacks of flesh to be mowed through by the antagonistic force.  In The Faculty the characters are more important than the creatures trying to kill them.

Those characters include Casey (Elijah Wood), the thoughtful introvert, Delilah (Jordana Brewster), Casey’s crush who happens to be dating Stan (Shawn Hatosy) who has disappointed her by quitting the football team.  There’s also Clea DuVall as Stokely, a girl who hides behind somewhat goth makeup and pretends to be a lesbian, Zeke (Josh Hartnett), the fifth year student who likes to have a good time and sell drugs out of the back of his car.  Finally, there’s Marybeth (Laura Harris), the new student who is eager to make a few friends.

Now, these characters could all be run of the mill high school archetypes, but they subvert your expectations in a very Linklater, Dazed and Confused kind of way.  This comparison might be a bit of a stretch, but there is a distinct Wooderson vibe to Zeke, particularly as he’s the oldest and pervertedly charismatic of the group.  Stan’s desire to quit the football team is in line with the mindset of Pink from that Linklater film, and Wiley Wiggins, who played Mitch in Dazed even shows up in two scenes to buy drugs from Zeke.  Beyond that, Rodriguez and Linklater are both Austin-based filmmakers, and though their sensibilities are strikingly different, I can’t help but see this as Linklater rubbing on Rodriguez.

And then the alien parasites show up, and Dazed and Confused becomes The Thing.

Our group of heroes slowly put together what’s going on, but by the time they understand it, just about the whole school has been transformed into lobotomized shells of themselves.  Rebellious teenagers now dutifully do as they’re told, and… well that’s about it.  We never learn much about the parasites or what they have in mind.  This is a PG version of The Thing, with only minor gore, the computer effects of which pale in comparison to the practical effects of the Carpenter film, and the aliens’ plan is strangely benign.  They don’t want to kill the humans, they just want to take them over and I guess live a normal life?

It’s never really clear, nor does it matter.  Maybe the parasites really are taken straight from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though I haven’t yet seen that film.  Casey and Stokely continually reference this earlier film and use it as justification for whatever is happening within the school.  We’re told to believe it because it’s what they believe, and this acts as a shortcut to explaining what’s really going on.

The walls close in as just about everyone is taken over by parasites.  There are a few entertaining scenes and spectacles, notably the high school football game, but everything plays out pretty much as you’d expect.  Just as in The Thing, there is a scene in which the remaining students devise a plan to expose the parasites, this time using Zeke’s drugs which are known to harm the aliens, and slowly but surely the group is picked off until only Casey remains.

Again, because this is really just a watered down version of a series of other films, everything ends on a happy note.  There is no ambiguity, and throughout the film there is never any uncertainty.  Even our heroes are pretty sure that if they kill the ‘queen,’ then they can turn everyone back into their original selves.  The queen turns out to be Marybeth, the new student whose sudden arrival into town becomes suspect once everything goes haywire.

Everyone gets their happy ending, and that’s that.

The Faculty is a fun little ride, but it mostly remixes the essence of a series of other films in an attempt to create something new.  The best parts of this film are taken from other sources, and at no point does this movie show any originality or offer a reason to exist.  I found the most boring part of the film to be the climax as Casey raced to kill the queen alien, and I found the most engaging scenes to be the ones that paid clear homage to stories that had come before.

The characters are all quite compelling, more than they need to be in this story, but these are characters I cared much more about than I did the plot constructions.  I would much rather have followed around Zeke “I’m a contradiction” Tyler than watch him mow down parasitic aliens.  The Faculty, thanks to some inspired storytelling and worldbuilding, introduces us to characters and a world that should be a lot of fun to swim around in but which is eventually just a little underwhelming.  All mystery evaporates once the characters and we figure out what’s going on because the plot movements are from a boiler plate slasher movie but without the spectacle offered by The Thing.

Up Next: The Wrestler (2008), Suspicion (1941), The Ides of March (2011)

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