The Faculty (1998) ***
Huh. Can you still call it a Leave It Off the Resumé Movie when it’s ignored, forgotten, and part of a disreputable genre, but not actually bad? The Faculty’s credits read like a Who Isn’t Who Yet of the late 90’s and early 21st century: script by Kevin Williamson; Robert Rodriguez in the director’s chair; a cast that includes Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Robert Patrick, Jordana Brewster, the soul singer Usher— hell, even Jon Stewart! Nevertheless, its run of the theaters was on the long end of “blink and you’ll miss it” (I blinked. I missed it.), and if I had to guess why, I’d blame an advertising campaign that made it look like Class of 1999 remade as a PG-13 slasher movie. In point of fact, though, The Faculty was R-rated, it wasn’t a slasher movie, and although the Class of 1999 comparison holds up to some extent, this movie finds a much more compelling way to make the teaching staff of Herrington High School go bad. Rather than The Stepford Teachers by way of Westworld, what we have here is more like High School of the Body Snatchers or The Breakfast Club vs. the Puppet Masters.
It’s after hours at Herrington High School, and Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) is conferring with Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie, from The Son of Ali Baba and Carrie), Mr. Tate (Daniel Von Bargen, of Basic Instinct and RoboCop 3), and Mrs. Brummel (Susan Williams, from The 13th Warrior and Unholy)— who respectively teach drama, social studies, and I’m not really sure what— breaking the bad news that none of the expensive items high up on their wish lists for the school year commencing tomorrow will fit within the operating budget. Coach Willis (Robert Patrick, of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money), on the other hand, will get every damn thing he wants. Miss Drake isn’t any happier about that than the three teachers, but this little Ohio town loves its football, and there’d be an uproar if the boys on the gridiron had to go without new jerseys or tackling dummies in order to make room for something as trivial as a modern computers, a musical, or a field trip to New York. The teachers file sullenly out of the conference room while the principal goes to get her keys from the office and lock up for the night. Miss Drake is rather surprised to see Coach Willis waiting for her, but she is tellingly not surprised by the way he blocks her exit from the office to make boorish passes at her. Even so, Willis goes well beyond what we may take to be his usual standard of unacceptable behavior, physically attacking the principal and stabbing her through the hand with a pencil. Miss Drake counterattacks, slashing the coach’s face with a convenient pair of heavy-duty scissors, then makes a run for it. She is relieved to find Mrs. Olson still dawdling outside when she reaches the school’s main entrance, but the older woman’s presence doesn’t help her any. Indeed, Mrs. Olson bars Miss Drake’s retreat, snatches away the scissors as Coach Willis closes in from behind, and goes to work on her with her own improvised weapon.
The next section of the movie is devoted to introducing the kids who will be The Faculty’s main focus. Little has changed since John Hughes’s day, or so it would seem. There’s a Molly Ringwald named Delilah (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning’s Jordana Brewster) who is dating an Emilio Estevez named Stan (The Postman’s Shawn Hatosy), a persecuted and scapegoated Anthony Michael Hall called Casey (Elijah Wood, of The Good Son and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies), an Ally Sheedy known as Stokely (Clea DuVall, from Ghosts of Mars and The Grudge), and a Judd Nelson by the name of Zeke (Josh Hartnett, from 30 Days of Night and Halloween H20). Williamson and Rodriguez make some effort to subvert the Breakfast Club paradigm by making Delilah the head of the school newspaper, Casey one of the photographers on her staff, Stan a disaffected wannabe scholar, and Zeke an underachieving genius, but since the whole point of The Breakfast Club was the superficial subversion of its own paradigm in the first place, it doesn’t really work out. The net extent of the groundbreaking on that front is the mildly interesting point that Stokely encourages the popular kids to believe she’s a lesbian, on the theory that if she’s going to be hated and ostracized anyway, she might as well provide her tormentors with some concrete excuse. The Faculty also adds to the mix a little-seen and mostly irrelevant black jock named Gabe (Usher) and a recent transplant from Atlanta who insists upon introducing herself with exhaustive thoroughness as Marybeth Louise Hutchinson (Laura Harris, of Habitat and The Calling).
Anyway, the plot really gets moving when Casey finds something weird on the football field while eating his lunch on the bleachers. It’s clearly an invertebrate animal of some kind, but it’s nothing he’s ever seen before, even in a book or on TV. Casey takes the strange creature to Mr. Furlong the science teacher (Jon Stewart… I still can’t get over that), and once Furlong gets it under the binocular microscope, he realizes that he doesn’t know what it is, either. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that Casey may have discovered a new species. (Or in Casey’s formulation, “A new phylum— maybe even a new species.” This is precisely backwards in order of significance. New species are discovered every time some biologist turns over a rock in the tropics or drops a net into an oceanic trench. In contrast, you could count on your digits the phyla that have been discovered during the last 50 years.) Also, from the way the thing twitches when water drips on it, the specimen is probably still alive. Reasoning that the response to water might imply an aquatic lifestyle, Mr. Furlong transfers the creature to an aquarium— yeah, it likes the water, alright. Its flesh undergoes a drastic change of color and consistency, it sprouts a veritable forest of long, red filaments from its flanks, and it starts swimming contentedly around the tank, looking even less like anything that belongs on this planet. And as Mr. Furlong discovers when he reaches into the tank to touch the revived animal, its mouth is lined with tiny, needle-like teeth, mounted on jaws strong enough to draw blood from a human finger with them. The thing’s body also breaks into pieces if it is gripped firmly and abruptly, with each fragment developing into a new organism. More importantly than any of that— although this won’t become apparent for a while yet— the now-plural creatures are parasites on vertebrate nervous systems, forming a sentient mass mind focused on the original, and conferring upon each individual host some of the parasites’ regenerative powers.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ll already realize that Coach Willis and Mrs. Olson were possessed by parasites when they attacked Miss Drake, and you’ll know what it means when the principal shows up at school seemingly none the worse for all the scissor and pencil wounds. By midday, Mr. Tate, Mrs. Brummel, Miss Burke the English teacher (Famke Janssen, from Lord of Illusions and House on Haunted Hill), and who knows what proportion of the school staff we haven’t met yet have been possessed, too, and the creatures begin setting their sights on the student body. The parasites have miscalculated in taking over Mrs. Brummel, though, for her aged, cancer-ridden body is unable to handle the strain. Desperate for water (the parasites’ metabolism requires an immense amount of the stuff, even in a healthy host), Mrs. Brummel wanders into the boys’ shower room while Stan is inside washing up (just don’t ask me why he’s alone in there in the middle of the school day), with the result that Stan witnesses the revolting spectacle of the old lady literally falling to pieces. Meanwhile, Delilah and Casey are snooping around in the teachers’ lounge, looking for something scandalous to put on the front page of their paper, when Mr. Tate and Mrs. Olson come looking for a secluded spot in which to spread the contagion to Nurse Harper (From Dusk Till Dawn’s Salma Hayek). The kids duck into a supply closet in time to avoid discovery, giving them a fine vantage point from which to observe the implantation of Nurse Harper’s parasite. (It works about the same way as the mind-controlling bugs in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) The efforts of Stan, Delilah, and Casey to make sense of what they’ve seen eventually bring together all the core teen characters except for Gabe (who has a parasite with his name on it), and a confrontation with the now-possessed Mr. Furlong reveals that the drug Zeke sells out of the trunk of his car (a caffeine-based powder he calls “scat”) is lethal to the parasites— and to their hosts as well. Herrington High thus has a team of potential defenders and a weapon with which to mount that defense, but how much of the school and the community it serves remains to be defended at this point? For that matter, how far can any of the self-appointed monster-slayers really trust each other when the possessed give only the vaguest indications of being no longer human until they’re ready to set you up with a parasite of your own?
When I saw the commercials for The Faculty on television back in 1998, I thought, “Huh. Maybe when it comes to the dollar theater.” That happened too fast for me to keep up with it, and the ten-year delay between this movie’s theatrical demise and my finally getting around to watching it should tell you how broken up I was about missing my chance. As I implied at the beginning of the review, I took it for a post-Scream slasher flick, and my appetite for those is strictly limited. It wasn’t until I caught a few minutes of the final act at a friend’s house a few months ago, and saw the incredibly cool monster that the original parasite’s host can turn into at will, that I started giving a crap— you all know how it is with me and monsters by this point, right? What’s all the more remarkable is that the big monster that impressed me so much was a CGI creation. Either Robert Rodriguez had more money at his disposal than I’d ever have guessed, or the effects people were frigging brilliant, because the thing doesn’t look even the least bit video-gamey— which is twice as weird, because the animation for the little, squirmy, slug-like parasites most assuredly does. Mama Monster is also noteworthy for its sheer weirdness, bearing very little resemblance to anything that ever lived on Earth, let alone to any previous cinematic creature. Even if The Faculty had been as bad otherwise as the commercials made it look, I’d feel compelled to give it a passing grade for the queen parasite alone.
Fortunately, though, that isn’t an issue. The Faculty has its weaknesses, certainly, but it’s a far cry from the “round up a bunch of kids from the prime-time soaps on UPN and film them being killed off” school that ruled the roost in the aftermath of Kevin Williamson’s earlier Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. There are a handful of likeable characters, for one thing, and the standard of acting, even among the young leads, is a fair sight higher than in, say, Urban Legend or Disturbing Behavior. Robert Rodriguez also gives considerable indication of why his career was in liftoff at the time; he makes some questionable decisions (what’s with the freeze-frames and name-splashes that accompany the introduction of each member of the We Skipped Breakfast Club?), but even in his worst failures, he brings a lot more personality to The Faculty than most of its teen-horror contemporaries could muster. The confrontation with Mr. Furlong especially is a hoot, suffused with Rodriguez’s characteristic mix of exaggerated violence, crisp editing and camerawork, and blackly absurd humor. Finally, although Williamson spent most of the years following Scream proving that he isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is— and although his screenplay for The Faculty is part and parcel of that phenomenon— there are a few touches in the story here that I simply adore. I mean, how often do you get to see a Hollywood movie set in an American high school that lets illegal drugs save the day? Mr. Mackey would be appalled. It’s almost enough to make up for how every idea about the parasites that Stokely pulls out of her ass at a moment’s prompting (‘cause she’s the big sci-fi geek, don’t you know) just happens to be correct, even though there’s never any apparent reason for them to be.