Frightening Friday: ‘The Faculty’ (1998) is a slick product that trades on a serious issue, but it’s all in good fun (Movie review)

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n 1998, I ranked “The Faculty” higher than “Disturbing Behavior” in my year-end top 10, but today I think the crisp, on-the-nose nature of director Robert Rodriguez’s film makes it the less interesting entry. Still, watching it today brings back that giddy feeling of getting not one but two school-as-hell movies in a matter of months. At Christmas of ’98, I knew how volcano enthusiasts felt in 1997 and how asteroid fans felt earlier in the year.

Although not entirely free of the shackles of its era, “The Faculty” is purposely a more timeless movie than “Disturbing Behavior,” as writer Kevin Williamson (“Scream,” “Dawson’s Creek”) moves the premise of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to a high school and switches the mood from deadly serious to cleverly hammy. Rodriguez’s penchant for making films for his own fun and that of his friends is present, but not to its detriment. “The Faculty’s” teachers-as-aliens premise resonated on a literal level for 20-year-old me who thought it was illuminating an important issue, and now it plays as a funny romp.

The cast is deep and talented, but I’ll mention a few standouts. Shawn Hatosy, who looks like a scowling bully, plays against type as nice guy Stan; he quits the football team to focus on his studies, and loses interest in the popular newspaper editor (Jordana Brewster’s Delilah) when she turns shallow. Laura Harris plays new girl Marybeth Louise Hutchinson, starting a trend of playing sweethearts with hidden depths, most notably on TV’s “Dead Like Me.”

Among the teachers, Daniel von Bargen – best known as George’s boss on “Seinfeld” who is “not too worried about it” – brings natural humor to the burned-out Mr. Tate. When the aliens body-snatch the teachers, their personalities change, and the most fun example is Famke Janssen as Miss Burke. She goes from the target of ridicule of campus drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) to the confident, sexy teacher.

Depending on your perspective, “The Faculty” is an uninspired ripoff or a clever repurposing that teases new meanings to the surface based on the universal adolescent experience.

Williamson arguably time-stamps “The Faculty” too much for its own good. Pop-culture references were not quite stale at the time, so it was novel to hear Zeke mention Jennifer Love Hewitt and Neve Campbell as people who exist in this fictional world (on bootleg porn tapes, allegedly), and to hear nerdy photographer Casey (Elijah Wood) reference “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” when spouting his alien theories (which conveniently are spot-on).

On the other hand, the works Williamson rips off are golden-age SF. The scene where everyone snorts Zeke’s powdered caffeine to prove their humanity comes from “The Thing,” which is adapted from a 1938 novella. And Casey’s friend Stokely (Clea DuVall) name-drops the 1951 novel “The Puppet Masters” and the 1956 movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Williamson essentially blends those works together and moves them to high school, so depending on your perspective, “The Faculty” is an uninspired ripoff or a clever repurposing that teases new meanings to the surface based on the universal adolescent experience.

The film includes plenty of relatable slices of horrific high school life, especially through the lens of Casey, who gets his testicles slammed into a flagpole like it’s his daily bullying appointment and later has his folks going through his room looking for drugs and referring to him as “they.” (“They hide the drugs in the spine of the book. We saw it on ‘Dateline,’ ” his mom tells his dad.)

Today, “The Faculty” is notable for both its diversity and lack of diversity. The group of kids who come together to fight the alien teachers represent various cliques. This is different from “DB,” where the heroes are all social outcasts. On the other hand, all six members of the heroic group are white, and only Brewster is part-Hispanic; that’s a pretty bad ratio, especially considering that “The Thing” was racially diverse 16 years before this.

Considering that Williamson is gay, it’s interesting that “The Faculty” includes no gay characters. Stokely pretends to be a lesbian so she’ll be an outcast and therefore be left alone. Delilah takes the bait, making fun of Stokely’s supposed sexual orientation at every opportunity. The only student who encourages her to embrace her (supposed) sexuality is the one who turns out to be an alien, and indeed, Stokely is not gay anyway: Her kiss with her crush, Stan, concludes the film.

Although I don’t use diversity as a metric of a film’s quality, “The Faculty’s” lack of it is an example of how cautious it is at its core. I don’t come away feeling like this comes from the heart of Rodriguez or Williamson, but more so from their assignment queue. By comparison, “Disturbing Behavior” – while a sloppier film – feels like a more personal work. That said, Rodriguez and Williamson have a blast with this assignment, and like them, I am a sucker for teachers and students who turn into alien monsters.

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