The Faculty Review

by "Mark O'Hara" (mwohara AT hotmail DOT com)
March 6th, 1999

The Faculty (1998)

A Film Review by Mark O'Hara

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What do you get when you combine literary elements with a "B" storyline? A film that's hard to brag about but difficult to dislike. 'The Faculty.'

Kevin Williamson, the writer of 'Scream,' has churned out another post-modern horror flick, a yarn targeted toward teenagers, in which teenagers are targets. Into the formulaic plot he has mixed a pinch of motifs, a smidgen of imagery, a dash of foreshadowing. The result is a movie full of flavors, another self-reflexive romp that does not stay with you for long.

At Herrington High School in Ohio, most of the kids are punks and most of the teachers are burnt out. There's Mrs. Drake the principal (Bebe Neuwirth), who plays the part of a frank realist. She tells Mrs. Olsen the drama teacher (Piper Laurie) that no, plays will not receive the proper funding - but football will. "Have you seen the stands on Friday nights? The whole town is there," she quips. There's also an alcoholic teacher who does not even know what chapter the class is supposed to be covering. Finally we meet the foul-mouthed football coach, played wonderfully by Robert Patrick with his smooth face and squinty eyes. It's Coach Williams who is first infected, or rather invaded, by the alien species that eventually takes over the faculty, most of the student body, and ostensibly, at one of those Friday games under the lights, the entire town.

It takes awhile for all this to happen, and along the way we watch as Williamson and director Robert Rodriguez sketch in the traits that help us to tell the six teen heroes apart. Casey (Elijah Wood) is the photographer for the school paper, a computer geek who has not yet raised a whisker and who is continually harassed by various badasses of the school. Zeke is played by Josh Hartnett (a dead ringer for a young Tommy Lee Jones); his character is a dealer of anything illicit. From the trunk of his muscle car Zeke peddles pills, cherry-flavored condoms, and a drug of his own concoction, a white powder that can be sniffed from the barrel of a ball point. The final male is Stan (Shawn Wayne Hatosy), the star quarterback who decides to quit the team so he might focus on his studies.

Stan's decision poses problems for his girlfriend, the shallow Delilah (Jordana Brewster), a stunning cheerleader and editor of the school paper. She implies she'll drop him but quick. Delilah also has problems with a girl named Stokely (Clea DuVall), calling her a violent lesbian. The third female is Marybeth, a slim blonde from Atlanta, an unassuming new kid in school who tries to befriend everyone. Thus the stereotypes are set.

Although the mild-mannered Casey and his editor witness, through the slats in a closet door, a couple of the alien-possessed teachers graphically recruit the school nurse, they cannot get their friends to believe them. It takes a scene of full confrontation with the erstwhile science teacher. He corners the six and says, "This won't take long" - as if he expects the teens to line up compliantly for the grotesque inoculation. What follows - a turning point - is one of the strongest scenes in the film.

Soon afterwards, we see one of the weakest. Yes, the film is derivative, and for the most part the script tries to be witty about its borrowing; but the scene in which suspicion raises its Gorgon head smacks too much of Kurt Russell and the crew from John Carpenter's 'The Thing.' Here even the acting lapses into a congeries of wooden, menacing expressions.

Many of the other allusions work well. Stokely, who wears black eye shadow, doesn't bother to dispel the rumors of homosexuality; they allow her to be a loner. She makes use of her extensive reading of science fiction - especially Robert Heinlein - to guide her harried school mates in their quest to escape and, hopefully, to conquer the aliens. We also glean elements of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,' 'The Puppet Masters,' and, when one of the youngsters is compared to 'Ripley,' the 'Alien' movies. There's a neat scene near the end when Casey is running from the thing, and we see shadowed cross-hatching on the floor of the locker room - reminiscent of the lighting in 'Aliens.'
Water imagery is remarkable as well. Rodriguez comes close to being heavy-handed here, placing water in several key scenes: there's the sprinkler system on the football field (a sure sign that academics are being neglected!); the tank in the science room, where an embryonic alien is revived; a rainstorm into which the thing inhabiting the coach extends its thin tentacles; bottled water and the faculty room cooler; and the indoor pool in which one of the creatures does an instantaneous shape-shift into the fanged lobster-snake hybrid chasing Casey. All these images work, though, lending unity and even a certain comedy to the plot. Cool special effects, too.

What's gratuitous in this late '90's teen treatment? For one, the language goes too far, probably in the service of sending up real problems in many American high schools. The drug use gives a tawdry tone, though figuring prominently in the resolution. Most noticeably, the behavior of the teachers, after they are taken over, is inexplicably bold and sexual. Bebe Neuwirth as Principal Drake dresses in skimpy outfits, flaunting her skinny curves. Another teacher, Miss Burke (Famke Janssen), threatens and curses out Zeke, and later speaks provocatively before attempting to, well, impregnate him. Again and again Rodriguez and Williamson cater to young viewers, working sex and screams into the same sentence.

'The Faculty' knows it is smart. Though it is not packed as full of self-reflexivity as the 'Scream' movies, the clever and engaging tones are there. Fans of science fiction and horror, teenagers 16 and over, teachers seeking easy laughs, go to see or rent this film. Hokey, yes, but light entertainment blended with just a touch of literature.

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