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Fright Fest 2019:The Faculty (1998)

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Directed By: Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado)

Starring: Jordana Brewster (Fast and the Furious Series), Clea DuVall (Carnivale, Identity), Louis Harris (Dead Like Me, Severance), Josh Harnett (30 Days of Night, Bunraku), Shawn Hatosy (Alpha Dog, The Lazarus Project), Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings, Sin City) Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, From Dusk Till Dawn 2), Famke Janssen (X-Men, GoldenEye), Piper Laurie (Carrie, Twin Peaks), Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers, Jumanji), Daniel Von Bargen (Lord of Illusion, Super Troopers), Jon Stewart (Former Daily Show Host), and Selma Hayek (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn)

Written By; David Wechter (Penn & Teller’s Bullshit), Bruce Kimmel, and Kevin Williamson (Scream Film Series, Cursed)

Release Year: 1998

Review by: Andy Taylor

Everyone has those films that were quintessential to their teenage years. Maybe it wasn’t your favorite films, or even the most important ones, but they represent what you remember most, and one of those movies for me is The Faculty. It doesn’t rank anywhere near the top of my favorite movies from the decade, but whenever I think back to it, I think of being an unruly teenager. Sneaking drinks during school hours, cutting class to go play Mortal Kombat at the laundromat, hanging out in downtown Campbell looking for mischief, and a dozen other nostalgic memories of being a teenage delinquent all come screaming back when I think of The Faculty. It was the movie myself and the couple of friends I had would watch while getting drunk and talking about our favorite horror and sci-fi movies, not because it was that good but because it was one of the few movies I had on VHS. Don’t let my drunken viewings make you think you need to be drunk to enjoy the film though. Giving it another watch after all these years was a rather enjoyable experience, and I found that the movie had held up surprisingly well. In fact, I had a completely new point of view while watching it this time, but before I get to that, a little synopsis.

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Herrington High in Ohio is just like any other high school in a small football town, the football team is the most important thing in the world, much to quarterback and team captain Stan Rosado’s (Shawn Hatosy) chagrin. Stan has lost interest in the sport and would rather focus on his academics but doing so in a football town is no easy task, especially since his girlfriend, head cheerleader Delilah Profitt (Jordana Brewster), won’t date anyone but a team captain. That would be great for school nerd Casey Connor (Elijah Wood) though. Casey has had a crush on Delilah for a while, a crush he has hidden very poorly, so poorly in fact that his fellow outcast, Stokely Mitchell (Clea DuVall), knows all about it. While most of the teens go about the drama that is high school, one student, Zeke Tyler (Josh Hartnett), on his second attempt at a senior year, couldn’t care less. Zeke is more interested in selling drugs, among other things, and hitting on new student and naïve southern belle Marybeth Louis Hutchinson (Laura Harris) who picked the worst time to change schools.

Small alien parasites have begun taking over the students and teachers of Herrington and linking them to a hive mind. Though some freewill is taken away, the hosts are left in a mostly happy state and have no wish to break free. The plot was to have gone unnoticed until the town was completely linked, but Casey and Delilah accidentally stumble across the takeover trying to dig up dirt for the school newspaper. When Zeke, Stokely, Stan, and Marybeth all find out as well, the six very different students must work together if they hope to hang on to their individuality, but something more advanced than the parasites is watching them. It seems a queen is in control of all those infected, and the queen doesn’t just want the students, she wants the planet.

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I love watching a movie again after not having seen it in years. We all change, hopefully, as we age, so how we feel at twenty isn’t usually going to be how we feel at thirty, and that was very apparent watching The Faculty this time around. Twenty years ago, I was adamantly on the side of the humans, but with this viewing, I didn’t feel it was so cut and dry, and I loved that. It added a new level to the film I’d never experienced, and I had to really think about who I’d want to win. While there were a few who seemed to have changed completely once infected with the parasites, most didn’t seem to be fundamentally different than they were before. Two teachers taken over in the very beginning even express that they’re finally able to act on desires they’ve always had. The only real change was that they now had a connection that transcended anything we know, a connection that helped to alleviate fear, loneliness, and hatred, emotions that are far too abundant and destroying us as a species.

If you’re still essentially you, but a you that’s happier and more fulfilled than you could ever be otherwise, then what’s the downside? Well, the downside would be a complete lack of individuality which would probably be just as harmful to humanity, diversity in thought and our imaginations being the things that keep us ever moving forward. In the end, I’d still be on the “Let’s Stop the Aliens” side, but I enjoyed the thought experiment regardless, even if it was most likely unintentional on Robert Rodriguez’s part. Speaking of Robert Rodriguez, I completely forgot he directed this. I also forgot just how many famous actors were involved, some of whom have lost their luster in the ensuing years.

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The Faculty cast is full of easily recognizable people. On top of the already mentioned cast playing the students, we’ve got Robert Patrick, Piper Laurie (otherwise known as Carrie’s mom), Famke Janssen, Selma Hayek, Christopher McDonald, Usher, Daniel von Bargen, Bebe Neuwirth, and even Jon Stewart. There’s also a cameo by Ain’t It Cool News founder and all around scumbag Harry Knowles, though I’ve no idea how they managed to remove his head from his own ass long enough for filming to commence, and That 70’s Show predator Danny Masterson, but the less said about them, the better.

I wish I could touch on all the other actors and the great jobs they did with their characters, but without a small central cast, it would take far too long to go over each one individually, so they’ll have to be grouped together. The actors playing the six main students each did wonderful with their stereotypes, coming across as the pinnacle of the high school social structure’s different subsets. Elijah Wood really seems like the school nerd, Jordana Brewster, the mean popular girl, Clea DuVall, the sci-fi loving goth, etc. etc. It’s much the same for the teachers, each actor taking a particular stereotype and making their character all about that stereotype. Bargen is the alcoholic history teacher, Laurie, the exasperated drama teacher, Stewart, the awkward science teacher, and on and on.

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There are two actors that I would like to single out though, Robert Patrick and Famke Janssen, and the reason I’d like to touch on them was because they had such dramatic shifts. Patrick goes from rage filled to calm and understanding while Janssen goes from scared of everything to extremely confident. They’re both why I earlier added a “mostly” to people still being who they were before being infected by a parasite. The shifts were at times uncomfortable just because you weren’t sure which version of the character you were going to be getting, and that is another strength of The Faculty, the ability to make you uncomfortable.

This isn’t a movie that’s going to scare or terrify anyone, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be, but it is a movie that will at times make you tense and uncomfortable. Much as I thought Phantoms was a second rate The Thing, I found The Faculty to be The Thing lite. It’s got the tension and the paranoia, but it’s mostly just a fun movie, one you can tell took several ideas from other sources. That doesn’t mean it’s a rip off, far from it. The inspiration might come from a few different sources, but The Faculty forges its own path while crediting where those inspirations came from.

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For instance, the “who can you trust” paranoia felt like The Thing, and that appears to be very much intentional because there’s a few homages to the 80’s masterpiece like the group succumbing to paranoia and using a test to determine who is still themselves or a bodyless head wandering of its own volition. They also acknowledge a couple of novels with very similar plots during a conversation between Stokely and Casey in which they discuss first The Body Snatchers and then the inspiration behind The Body Snatchers, The Puppet Masters. The Faculty isn’t up to the level of those three inspirations of course, but it does have its moments.

One of the worst for me was the six uninfected students walking through the school after they realize most of the student body has been infected. It’s an amazingly tense walk, and I felt every bit as nervous as them, but I feel that nervous and somewhat panicked every time I’m in a crowd, so it might have affected me more so than others. There are also some interesting uses of more subtle methods to make the viewer uncomfortable like the now completely infected teaching staff standing around and drinking water. It’s nothing unusual for a person to drink water, but the overlaid and very loud gulping sounds as they took drink after drink felt wrong somehow and emphasized just how alien the people with parasites were.

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For what is essentially a 90’s teen flick, one with a perfect soundtrack for the time I might add, they did fantastic making The Faculty more than just a generic sci-fi action film. As much as there were feelings of discomfort, fun is still the word that comes to mind when I think back to my viewing, and two of the things that I found most enjoyable were trying to guess who was infected and looking out for all the little hints dropped along the way that something was wrong. They aren’t all easy to spot, the only reason I caught some of the ones I did was because I knew what was coming, but they are occasionally very clever. I’ll give a few examples, but I’ll do it at the end of this review so as not to spoil the movie for people who haven’t seen it. Before I get there, there’s one more thing I’d like to touch on, the FX work.

I did not expect the effects to have held up so well, but I think a good reason for that is the sparse use of late 90’s CGI. The parasites, for example, are done using a prop when they’re motionless and CGI while in motion, and even then, most of what’s moving are the thin tendrils that swirl around the creatures. The tendrils take the basic shape of whatever they need to be, so when someone places their palms against a glass tank holding a swimming parasite, the tendrils take the shape of the nerves in the hand, and it looks fantastic. I loved the simplistic design they used as well, something akin to a tendril covered butterfly cocoon. The parasites should be simplistic as they’re symbiotic creatures unable to survive long without a host, but I’ve seen a lot of parasite movies over the years, and they’re usually horrific looking things done more for shock value than functionality.

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The queen was another well-designed creature, looking like something terrifying you’d see in the deepest trenches of our planet. While the design was awesome, when they aren’t using the amazing prop they created, the queen ends up looking somewhat cartoonish thanks to bad CGI. It was one of only two bad effects, the other being a dead body that could have come from a cheap Halloween store. The queen also has one of the better effects though, so I supposed it balances out. People infected by the parasite occasionally go through slight transformations, but when the queen, who is hiding among the students, turns into her true self, she melts into what she really is. It’s not an amazing effect even if it was a cool idea, but her turning back into a human was gorgeous. She changes underneath the water with the shadow of her former self trailing behind her, and it looks amazing. 

The Faculty isn’t the movie to watch if you’re looking to be frightened, but it’s still a fun movie with a great cast and some tension inducing moments. Just a word of warning, if you were a 90’s teen like me, be prepared for some serious nostalgia when you hear the soundtrack.

Here’s the SPOILERS I was talking about earlier. I’m about to totally ruin what’s really fun trying to guess, so if you haven’t seen this movie, please stop here. Okay, so towards the end you find out that the queen controlling all the people is our own Marybeth Louise Hutchinson. She somehow came to Earth (I wish they would have said how because it doesn’t sound like her species is very technologically advanced) and wants to connect all the people on the planet to her, and the movie drops some interesting hints long before the reveal.

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There’s things like her referring to herself as an alien in her introduction (which you’re supposed to think is just her way of saying she’s new to school), her referring to the queen as a she (everyone else just says master), and her dumping their only weapon all over a teacher (at the time, you just think she’s freaking out). According to IMDB, there’s a huge hint if you’re a Breakfast Club fan as well. Five of the six students have an equivalent in The Breakfast Club, but there’s one who doesn’t and that’s Marybeth. I tried to verify if this was a purposeful thing or just kind of worked out that way, and I could not, so take it with a grain of salt. If you give The Faculty a watch, try finding all the hints because there’s more than the few examples I’ve given. I found it to be a fun game.

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Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too.

Spooky Reads!

“Lumley’s strength is in his jovial voice, a diction that dominates the narrative. Lumley’s love of his pulp-horror subjects is gleefully apparent. He revels in every telling detail, in stories-within-stories….”San Francisco Chronicle. 

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