Retro-Review: The Faculty (1998)

From the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s, the horror genre was dominated by the influence of screenwriter Kevin Williamson.  The success of – and reception to – 1996’s ‘Scream’ not only gave the seemingly faltering genre a much-needed shot in the arm, but it also launched the career of a man whose writing style would be mimicked in the years to come. Naturally, with the film industry being a business it didn’t take long for other studios and producers to play a little game of “Monkey see, Monkey do” – although it should be pointed out that the guiltiest of this is Miramax/Dimension Films, the studio behind ‘Scream’ – and soon began a wave of whodunnit slasher films modeled by Williamson’s writing.

However, this didn’t just affect new “original” horror at the time, but it even took a hold on long-running horror franchises such as ‘Halloween’ with ‘Halloween: H20’ (1998), which Williamson wrote a treatment for early in its development, as well as ‘Child’s Play’ with ‘Bride of Chucky’ (1998), ‘Hellraiser’ with ‘Hellraiser: Hellworld’ (2005), and the ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ franchises with the joint-effort ‘Freddy vs Jason’ (2003) – although you could say that ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ did the META thing first with ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994).

While others were attempting to mimic his slasher film, Williamson made an effort to put his stamp on a different side of the genre with the teen-infused Science-Fiction/Horror film ‘The Faculty’, a love-letter to the “they walk among us” alien invasion story that was the focus of Jack Finney’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘The Puppet Masters’, both of which are referenced throughout the film, as well as Joseph W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’, and all of their subsequent film adaptations.

‘The Faculty’, based on a story from David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel, and directed by Robert Rodriguez, happens to be the one film in that long-ago era that stands out amongst the rest – with the exception of ‘Scream’ and ‘Scream 2’, of course – and arguably feels the less dated, while easily standing as the most entertaining of the bunch. In fact, I’d consider this to be Williamson’s most fun and entertaining script – I’m not saying it’s his best, as that honor goes to ‘Scream’, but as far as the popcorn entertainment factor, it certainly delivers – but that may be because I’ve always been very partial to the two stories that this film constantly references, with ‘The Puppet Masters’ being one of my favorite novels of all time, so I was easily attached to the concept. But I do feel that a big part of the entertainment factor to this movie lies with the characters and the actors, and just how fun it is when they’re all interacting with each other.

More on them in just a bit.

The story is simple enough: A parasitic alien species has infiltrated a High School in a small Ohio town. Why specifically a High School? Well, this just happens to be set in a town that is obsessed with High School Football, and, as pointed out in the opening sequence, everyone in town shows up for the games; and on top of this, as Elijah Wood’s character Casey points out halfway through the film, the smartest way for a successful alien invasion is to come through the backdoor. So, this alien race begins with the staff, and eventually the students, of Herrington High with their sights set on the entire town in their first step to populate the planet and make a new home for themselves.

Standing in their way is a rag-tag group of unlikely allies; students from different social statuses who each begin to suspect that something’s not right. They are made up of Casey (Elijah Wood), Stokely (Clea Duvall), Stan (Shawn Hatosy), Delilah (Jordana Brewster), Zeke (John Hartnett), and Mary-Beth (Laura Harris) – oh, and Usher is in there too. I mean he’s not bad in the movie, but he is only in a small handful of scenes and is neither a leading protagonist nor antagonist, but the promotional material wants you to believe that he has a prominent role, and who am I to get in the way of false advertisement? so I figured I’d mention him here just to play ball.

Each of the protagonist here have personality and are (mostly) likeable – except for Delilah, of course – and they have a natural chemistry together as if they really were classmates who knew of each other but are truly getting to know each other as the story progresses. I like the idea that these characters are initially introduced through social stereotypes that are peeled away, and that the real them which exists beneath the surface can cast a suspicion of doubt, as the established giveaway as to who’s human and who’s not relies on spotting a change in personality; say, The jock who quits football in favor of education, or the nerd who stands up for himself, or the goth chick who has an interest in the Quarterback, or the drug dealer/slacker who is repeating his senior year, yet whose high I.Q. reveals itself during an analysis of a parasite  and etc.  This, I think, leads to an effective scene in which the group begins to accuse and suspect each other and must perform a test to satisfy their suspicions, in a clear nod to ‘The Thing’.

The flip side to these characters are the equally fun performances from Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Jon Stewart, Piper Laurie, Daniel Von Bargen, Salma Hayek, and Bebe Neuwirth as the school’s faculty members who are the first to be consumed by the alien parasites. In particular, Robert Patrick and Famke Jensen stand out, with the former playing the hot-headed Coach Willis, whose demeanor transitions into menacingly calm, while the latter plays the meek English teacher, Miss Burke, who becomes menacingly seductive. Both of them give really fun performances as the darker sides of their characters, and they’re a joy to watch.

The story from Wechter, Kimmel, and Williamson does a great job balancing the large number of characters, with the majority of them getting moments to shine. This first half of the movie effectively establishes all of the characters and their conflicts individually, and the second half kicks into gear with the characters coming together in the two groups – human and parasite – and in my opinion, It’s the combination of script and casting that is the movie’s greatest strength.

I do have a couple of negatives with the movie, but they are minor: The editing is pretty awkward at times; the score from Marco Beltrami is mostly good but ultimately ruined with the inclusion of themes from the ‘Scream’ films; and lastly the CGI does not hold up. But when it comes to this movie, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it sure is a solid piece of escapism that still entertains 25 years later.

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About Seth T. Miller 90 Articles
I am first and foremost a proud father of two daughters who may or may not be possessed by demonic entities/deadites -- time will tell on that one, but I am pretty confident that one of them translated the Necronomicon. I enjoy short walks to my movie collection, reading in goddamn piece and quiet, and watching the same movies and tv series over and over instead of discovering new stuff.