Wednesday, October 15, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 14 - The Faculty

#8 (Tie) - 6 Votes

The Faculty was released near the end of the post-Scream wave of self-referential, self-consciously hip teen horror movies that dominated the second half of the decade. Written by Scream's Kevin Williamson - whose other credits, in the two years between Scream and The Faculty, were I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, Dawson's Creek and uncredited rewrites on Halloween: H20 - it's a calculated mix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Breakfast Club. When an alien parasite starts taking over the minds of the teachers at an average suburban high school, a group of very different students - including a brain, a jock, a popular girl, a bullied Goth girl and a misunderstood delinquent - have to work together to stop it from taking over the school and, presumably, the world. In the process, they have lots of feelings and learn that they're not as different as they thought. It's a blatant mash-up of elements from popular movies, and I'm not sure if the fact that the movie acknowledges that it's stealing (Elijah Wood and Clea DuVall's characters actually discuss Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Heinlen's The Puppet Masters in one scene) makes it more or less cynical than if it played dumb. And when characters spoke in Williamson's trademark hyperarticulate dialogue, I honestly couldn't remember if it was an accurate reflection of how teens talked back then or if they started talking that way because they saw Scream and Dawson's Creek, and I was one of those teens.

While I have tried to avoid reducing my write-ups to click bait-y "Remember this? Does this make you feel old?" stuff, I must say that The Faculty might be the quintessential '90s horror movie. Just the sight of the Dimension logo lighting up, with The Offspring on the soundtrack, had a Proustian impact. If anyone were to make a parody of late-'90s teen horror movies, it would look a lot like The Faculty. The characters are introduced with freeze-frames and title cards showing their names - I'm bad with font names, but it was that paint splatter-looking one, kind of like the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas font, but more '90s and extreme (I'm sure it was an option on Microsoft Word at the time). Usher, Wiley Wiggins and Danny Masterson show up in small roles, and Harry Knowles has a cameo as a teacher. Jon Stewart shows up, just before he took over The Daily Show, rocking a sweet goatee (the scene where he gets stabbed in the eye was a go-to punchline on The Daily Show for years). The soundtrack even features an ultra-'90s supergroup - Layne Staley on vocals, Tom Morello on lead guitar, Stephen Perkins on drums and Martyn LeNoble on bass - that was assembled specifically for this movie to provide a shitty cover of "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)." If you added a Jesse Camp cameo, a character who is really into rap metal and a reference to the Taco Bell chihuahua, this would be the perfect 1998 time capsule.

Probably the most of-its-time element of the movie is that Josh Hartnett's sensitive badass character is a drug dealer who sells an unspecified powder. The character is clearly modeled after Judd Nelson's character from The Breakfast Club, but Bender just had a bag of weed in his locker. In The Faculty, Hartnett selling homemade amphetamines to his classmates is both supposed to make him charmingly roguish and demonstrate that he's a smart kid who needs to apply himself. I didn't think anything of it as a teenager who knew almost nothing about drugs, but as a 30-year-old, I was mortified. There's also the suggestion of a romantic attraction between Hartnett and a teacher played by Famke Janssen, a weird recurring theme in Willliamson's work. So there was a brief moment in popular culture where a movie could confuse Jesse Pinkman for John Bender and have us rooting for him to have sex with his teacher. The '90s were weird.

I was surprised how well The Faculty did in this poll; I'm guessing that, if I'd been a little younger when I saw it, I'd have more affection for it. It's not bad, though, and it's especially fun when it gets to let loose with its The Thing-influenced creature effects by KNB. Director Robert Rodriguez does a fine job of aping Wes Craven's work on Scream, though his work here was the first hint that he'd be less of an auteur than Tarantino or his other contemporaries and more of a..."hack" is a strong word, so we'll say a commercially-minded journeyman. The casting of the teachers is inspired, with Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie, in particular, riffing on their most famous genre roles. And it was fun to spot a ton of familiar faces near the beginning of their careers, especially Clea DuVall as Ally Sheedy.

U.S. Release Date: December 25, 1998 (Also released that day: Patch Adams, Stepmom, Mighty Joe Young, The Thin Red Line, Hurlyburly, A Civil Action, The Swindle, The Theory of Flight)

What critics said at the time: 

"A sci-fi/horror thriller so derivative that it thoughtfully acknowledges its principal influences in the dialogue, screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Robert Rodriguez's wise-to-its-audience shocker is nevertheless exactly the kind of sporadically clever, button-pushing fright-fest that keeps genre fans hanging on until something more fulfilling comes along." - Matland McDonagh, TV Guide

"Amid the traditional year-end deluge of prestige pictures, a smart, lively and unpretentious exploitation picture is always a welcome treat. And that's exactly the pleasure of seeing 'The Faculty,' a rip-roaring collaboration between director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kevin Williamson. It's a consistently funny and clever teen horror flick that in the Williamson 'Scream' tradition of hip references to old films also offers nods to 'The Thing,' 'Forbidden Planet' and 'The Puppet Masters." - Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times


christopher fujino said...

You make Rodriguez sound like a cynical opportunist. Well, at his worst he is, but I believe this film is as much a labor of love for him as Machete was. Also, SPOILERS Jon Stewart's character doesn't die.

Andrew Bemis said...

Fixed, thanks. Why do you see this as a labor of love for Rodriguez? It was a hired gun gig that he inherited after Wes Craven passed, which he agreed to do on the condition that Dimension would greenlight Spy Kids.

christopher fujino said...

I didn't realize he directed this to get Spy Kids greenlit. Still, this film seems to steal a lot more lovingly from its predecessors than Scream, which I fear may top this list, which is a lot more cynical.