For the vast majority of us, negotiating the social pitfalls of education was (or still is) a rollercoaster ride of flaring hormones, various attempts at finding out your identity and the daily grind of weaving our way through the dog eat dog world of school just to get to the dismissal bell and as long as there’s been cinema, there’s been high school movies. Obviously the high point of the genre came during the 80’s with John Hughes’ iconic output of adolescent outpouring but in the 90’s, the screenwriter of Scream and the creator of Dawson’s Creek took the rather novel approach of grabbing arguably the most infamous teen movie of all and allowing it to cross breed with a slice of sci-fi paranoia in order to create The Faculty, Robert Rodriguez’s scrappy but hugely enjoyable mash-up of The Breakfast Club and Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers.
Even without the prospect of being infested by mind altering, tentacled horrors from beyond the stars, Herrington High School is a place of education that’s tough to endure. Cliques have the student population harshly devided, the school is hideously underfunded, the teachers are burned out and hugely cynical and the day to day life of timid schooler like Casey is utter hell to get through. While he (unsuccessfully) tries to avoid the daily ritual of having his nuts crushed against a sign post by any one of the numerous bullies who has his number, we follow other students as they pick their way through life – such as tormented goth Stokely, insecure jock Stan, underachieving loner Zeke, bitchy popular girl Delilah and new kid Marybeth. After each one of these troubled kids start noticing the personalities of their teachers subtly start changing, it becomes apparent that the faculty has been possesed by water obsessed alien parasites that have total dominatation in mind. Utilising their accumulated smarts and a healthy knowledge of pop culture alien invasions (“Would you blow up the White House Independence Day style, or would you sneak in through the back door?”) the mismatched group strive to find a way to thwart this passive aggressive takeover before their mutual distrust of each other grows far beyond simply not liking someone because they’re popular. Simply put, one way or another, someone is going to get schooled.
To say that The Faculty is somewhat derivative would frankly be an understatement of seismic proportions; the plot isn’t just like Breakfast Club meets Bodysnatchers – it IS Breakfast Club meets Bodysnatchers: right down to the identical John Hughes archetypes that battle for survival in this Don Siegel style environment. Kevin Williamson’s script also chooses to openly poach from that other masterpiece of paranoid sci-fi but cutting and pasting the most notorious scenes from John Carpenter’s The Thing into it’s Saved By The Bell environment and anything that could even remotely be attributed as original is loaded with humorous movie references that Williamson has cribbed from his own work on the Scream movies…
Such blatant and downright cheeky copying would usually get you booted from taking pretty much any exam in the world but luckily The Faculty manages to change things just enough to avoid familiarity breeding content thanks to the work of it’s legitimately impressive cast and it’s too cool for school director.
Coming off the rip-roaring romp that was From Dusk Till Dawn, guitar totting Hollywood rebel Robert Rodriguez may take a slightly more sedate approach than some of his previous works (no missile firing guitar cases or concealed crotch pistols in this film, I’m afraid), but by his own admission he is trying to ape the no-nonsense cinematography of one of his idols John Carpenter and tries to build a sense of nerve shattering dread. The frequent bursts of action are punchy and well edited with a standout being the American football game where the possesed home team absolutely fucking DESTROY their opponents much to the glee of their coach (Robert Patrick’s facial expressions as his boys kick serious butt are an absolute peach). Another boost is that Rodriguez really gets the material he’s working with and makes Herrington High an ostracizing warzone long before any little squishy mind manipulators show up. The razor sharp barbs causually hurled by the pupils at one another may be admittedly witty but their also REALLY fucking brutal with no blow too low; especially in matters regarding sexuality. If it all seems a little too harsh then you either went to a cartoonishly nice school or you’ve obviously obtained willfull memory loss from trying to blot this shit out because it all felt pretty accurate to me…
However, despite billing itself in it’s ad campaign as a pupil vs. teacher kind of film, the actual nature of the body snatching plot means that the movie is forced away from having a fully anarchic streak and it’s Alice Cooper, School’s Out attitude is diluted a little as the aliens menace spreads from the staff to the rest of the school. Now, that’s not to say that The Faculty isn’t a metric ton of throwaway awesome; because it fucking is, and as an unabashed dollop of undemanding 90’s cool it’s somewhat tough to beat and this is chiefly due to it’s huge and incredibly game ensemble cast. Future Hobbit Elijah Wood, future Fast & Furiouser Jordana Brewster and MIA heart-throb Josh Hartnett (still sporting his uncombed Halloween: H20 hair) lead the kid cast alongside Clea DuVall and Shawn Hatosy squares up to a veritable who’s who of character actors who round out the cast of extra-terrestrially flummoxed teachers. Get a load of this list; (*deep breath*) Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth, Salma Hayek, Jon Stewart, Daniel Von Bargen and Carrie White’s mother herself, Piper Laurie all portray the titular faculty while a cameo from Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles forms the cherry of a sometimes overly excruciatingly 90’s cake (I’m not gonna cheap shot the soundtrack mainly because I owned the bastard thing) that somehow never stops giving.
The filmmakers even give us an awesome (mostly practical and pretty fucking huge) climactic creature to marvel over and doesn’t skimp on the eye-popping alien effects either – although the riff on head-spider from The Thing (complete with it’s own dumbfounded kiss-off line) is actually pulled off by some admittedly shonky CGI but thankfully doesn’t affect the overall fun of the thing.
Of course, having such a bitter, foul mouthed and angry group of hero misfits leads to some issues later on (are we REALLY supposed to be happy for Delilah despite all the hideous homophobic shit she’s been giving Stokely and others presumably for years?) but mostly it adds nicely to the big, fat cheeky middle finger it’s jokingly holding up at the establishment which is crystallized chiefly by the copious usage of Zeke’s DIY narcotic, Scat (“Guaranteed to jack you up!”) to handily sort out who is human and who is a walking, talking cephalopod from outer space. The Faculty ain’t art, but it’s the next best thing and Rodriguez finds a nice balance between mixing in some harder edged material (despite their inner turmoil most of the kids protect themselves by being callous pieces of shit) in among the chaotic romping to neatly avoid that most dreaded of teen movie blunders: talking down to it’s audience.
Young, dumb and full of alien water creatures, The Faculty aims to be nothing more than a deeply cool cult flick and promptly scores a big fat bullseye. Yes, most of it’s best ideas have been nicked from other sources (even some of the songs on the soundtrack are covers) and yes it’s VERY typical of the time period it was made in (literally the first thing you hear when the film starts is The fucking Offspring), but for sheer throwaway thrills The Faculty is far from being held back another year…