The Faculty Review

by Edward Johnson-ott (PBBP24A AT prodigy DOT com)
December 30th, 1998

The Faculty (1998)
Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Jordana Brewster, Robert Patrick, Bebe Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Jon Stewart, Salma Hayek, Christopher McDonald, Usher Raymond, Susan Willis, Daniel von Bargen, Louis Black, Megan Gallagher, Joe Hatton, Harry Knowles, Duane Martin, Jason D. May, Katherine Willis. Screenplay by Kevin Williamson, from a story by David Wechter & Bruce Kimmel. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. 102 minutes.
Rated R, 4 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly
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I entered the theater to see "The Faculty" with low expectations, but came out grinning. The sci-fi horror thriller, directed by Robert Rodriguez from "Scream" scribe Kevin Williamson's screenplay, is a brash, welcome throw-back to the days of American International drive-in flicks. Williamson's script, about teens who discover that aliens have taken over the bodies of their high school faculty, cheerfully cribs ideas from a load of different sources and jumbles them together quite nicely, creating a very entertaining diversion. Think "Dawson's Creek" meets "The Breakfast Club" meets "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" meets "Scooby-Doo" and you'll have some idea of what to expect. "The Faculty" is funny, scary, lurid, gross and cheesy in just the right places.

The film works because Kevin Williamson understands what a kick exploitation movies can be. He's smart enough to play with the genre without mocking it and bold enough to write some of the most reckless scenes I've witnessed onscreen in years. Like any good exploitation flick, "The Faculty" is every parent's worst nightmare. In order to save the world, Williamson's teen heroes are required to get high, drive like maniacs, run around with guns and kill authority figures. Irresponsible? Yes, indeed, and isn't it nice to see a writer with faith in young people's ability to vicariously enjoy forbidden acts without emulating them.

Our heroes are six teen archetypes, each with just enough detailing to feel genuine. Casey (Elijah Wood) is a sheepish nerd prone to tripping over his own feet. He has a major crush on head cheerleader/school paper editor Delilah (Jordana Brewster), who is only too happy to remind him that she is completely out of his league. The aptly-named Delilah breaks up with star quarterback and all-around good guy Stan (Shawn Hatosy) when he quits the team to focus on his studies, tersely explaining that she dated him solely because of his place in the student hierarchy. But Stan has a secret admirer in sullen goth bookworm Stokey (Clea Duvall), a withdrawn girl who poses as a lesbian, hoping the pretense will cause typically homophobic classmates to steer clear of her.

On the fringes of this urban "Dawson's Creek" quartet is wholesome new girl in school, Marybeth (Laura Harris) and Zeke (Josh Hartnett), a dealer in fake I.D.'s, bogus videotapes and homemade designer drugs. With his ambling gait and chronic bed-head hair, Zeke reminded me of the beatnik kid from the "Scooby-Doo" cartoons. In fact, the story's teen sleuths were so reminiscent of the "Scooby-Doo" gang that I half-expected the film to end with an alien leader exclaiming "My plan would have worked if it wasn't for those meddling kids!"

Drugs, dangerous driving, and guns aside, "The Faculty" does carry a tacit positive message, showing that for our world to survive, people must set aside their differences and work together. And these kids need the power of unity, because in addition to the alien menace, they're facing a formidable adult cast.

As the school principal, Bebe Neuwirth is sexy and lethal; a murderous variant of her Lilith character from "Cheers" and "Frasier." Robert Patrick is terrific as the brutal football coach, his juiciest part since "Terminator 2." Patrick's perverse alien smile is even scarier than his pre-invasion drill sergeant rants. Both actors make the proceedings all the more creepy because their characters actually seem to enjoy being possessed. Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek, Jon Stewart, and Daniel von Bargen also turn in spirited performances, and Famke Janssen steams up the screen as a drab, repressed English teacher transformed into a beautiful seductress; a twisted spin on "My Fair Lady," with an alien slug serving as her Henry Higgins. Janssen is also the central figure in the film's most enjoyably over-the-top special effects scene, a great cornball homage to John Carpenter's "The Thing."

As usual, Williamson liberally peppers his script with pop culture references, but they seem less self-conscious here than in some of his other works. When the teens begin to explore the whole alien parasite theory, it's only natural that they look to science fiction for insight, speculating that the old axiom "write what you know" might even apply to the authors of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or "The Puppet Masters."

Director Robert Rodriguez keeps the film moving at a nice clip, neatly balancing laughs, gross-out scenes and "Night of the Living Dead" style claustrophobic dread as he builds to a climax that is at once campy and intense. Then, to cap things off, Kevin Williamson tweaks contemporary horror clichés with a nifty closing scene most notable for what it doesn't do. Lurid, high-spirited and unapologetic, "The Faculty" is great trashy fun. I only wish I could have watched it at a drive-in.

© 1998 Ed Johnson-Ott

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