Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Film Appreciation - Guaranteed to Jack You Up

Cody Hamman celebrates the 20th anniversary of The Faculty with Film Appreciation.

There were a bunch of horror films written by Kevin Williamson released within a small amount of time at the end of the '90s, and I was there at the theatre to see every one of them. Scream in December of '96, I Know What You Did Last Summer in October of '97, Scream 2 in December of '97, Halloween H20 in August of '98 (Williamson didn't take a writing credit on that one, but very obviously contributed to the screenplay)... Scream 3 wasn't ready for a December '98 release, but we still got another Williamson-scripted movie from Dimension Pictures that month. The Faculty, released on Christmas Day 1998. I was there to see it on Christmas with my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, and a whole bunch of other people in packed theatre.

The Faculty was an exciting release not only because Williamson wrote it but also because it was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who had caught my attention with Desperado in '95 and truly won my heart with From Dusk Till Dawn in '96. By the time The Faculty came out, I had already watched both of those films several times. From Dusk Till Dawn I had already literally sat through 100 times; there was a stretch where I would have that movie's VHS running on a loop all day every day. Looking back now, The Faculty stands out as feeling like the most work-for-hire film Rodriguez has ever directed, because he didn't write it, didn't develop it, he was just handed the project by Dimension. It may not have originated with him and it doesn't really feel like the average Rodriguez movie, but he brought some style to it.

This project didn't originate with Williamson, either. The initial draft of the script was written by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel in 1990 and Williamson was hired to rewrite the script after Scream. I'm assuming it was Williamson who chose to base some of the characters and the changes they go through on The Breakfast Club, that seems like something he would do. I've heard that George Huang, who had gotten positive attention for his 1994 directorial debut Swimming with Sharks, also did some work on the script, which makes sense given the fact that Huang has worked with Rodriguez multiple times in the years since this film.

Unlike the previous movies written by Williamson, The Faculty is not a slasher, although it is still a teen-centric horror movie. This one is an alien invasion film in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter's The Thing, but set in an Ohio high school where some of the students begin to notice that people around them - especially the teachers - are acting very strange. These people are, in fact, being taken over by alien creatures that are actually tentacled beasts beneath their stolen human facade.

The characters we follow through this scenario are Elijah Wood as the nerdy Casey; Shawn Hatosy as Stan, the jock who has more going on in his mind than anyone suspects; Jordana Brewster as Stan's popular cheerleader girlfriend, who writes for the school paper; Clea DuVall as goth girl Stokely, who will get an Ally Sheedy style makeover by the end of the film; Laura Harris as "new girl in town" Marybeth; and Josh Hartnett as the muscle car driving rebel who makes money on school property by selling bootleg videos and a drug of his own creation called Scat, a powdery substance Zeke packs inside pens. This was before a different definition of the word "scat" really caught on.

One of the stylistic touches Rodriguez added when he brought the script to the screen was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly style introductions to each of those characters. When they first appear on screen, they each get some kind of moment, then there's a freeze frame and the character's name appears on the screen. I love that he chose to do that, it's really cool and gives the characters an extra feeling of importance.

Despite what the marketing materials would like to lead you to believe, Usher Raymond does not have a large role in the film. He's a bully who's around for a couple scenes, then becomes an alien.

There was a great cast for the teenagers in the film, and Rodriguez also assembled a great cast for the titular faculty: Bebe Neuwirth of Cheers and Frasier, Piper Laurie from Carrie and The Hustler, GoldenEye Bond girl Famke Janssen, Rodriguez's Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn star Salma Hayek, Jon Stewart in the early days of his Daily Show reign, a creepy Daniel von Bargen, the T-1000 himself Robert Patrick, and Susan Willis as an elderly woman who doesn't take well to being assimilated. Plus there's a cameo by Ain't It Cool News found Harry Knowles, in the days when his site was ruling the internet.

I had just gotten the internet in August of '98, so The Faculty was one of the first movies I read about on the internet, following Ain't It Cool's coverage of it.

Characters who would normally not associate with each other are brought together as they realize that their teachers and classmates are now being controlled by alien monsters... and that the drug Zeke makes may be their key to solving this problem and saving the world. Scat isn't a serious drug so it's okay to still like Zeke, the main ingredient is caffeine, but the water-chugging aliens have a bad reaction to its diuretic quality.

This drug is so important that it's part of a variation on the blood test scene from The Thing - before they can put their plan to defeat the alien horde into action, each of the characters has to prove their humanity by snorting a pen of Scat. As in The Thing, someone fails this test.

When you step back and look at The Faculty as a whole, there is actually a surprising lack of major monster attacks for most of the running time. This is something I noticed even when I first watched it in '98, and I began daydreaming of how the film might have been improved if there was some more action packed in there. It still works as it is, though. This way the character interactions are the best thing about it, but there are some memorable creature moments as well.

I was never as blown away by The Faculty as I was by Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, or Scream 2, but I always enjoyed it, and still find it to be entertaining today... Twenty years later... It's insane to me that twenty years have already passed since it was released. I still very clearly remember that theatrical viewing I had of it in a packed theatre on Christmas day '98.

I also have memories related to listening to the film's soundtrack. That soundtrack actually had a bigger impact on me than the film itself did. I listened to it quite a lot. It primarily consisted of covers of classic rock songs, like a supergroup called Class of '99 doing Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall", Creed covering Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen", Soul Asylum doing their version of Cooper's "School's Out", Shawn Mullins covering David Bowie's "Changes" (another Breakfast Club connection). There were also original songs on there from the likes of Garbage, Sheryl Crow, Oasis, Stabbing Westward, etc.

The Faculty is fun. I wish I could go back to the day it was released.

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