THE FACULTY (1998)
A Reassessment File
By Paul McMahon – The Distracted Critic
For a long time, THE FACULTY had the unofficial title of “My Favorite Monster Movie I’ve Only Seen Once.” I don’t recall the specifics of when I first watched it, other than it was a rare occasion that I could turn off all the lights and unplug the phone and let myself get completely swept away. The movie wasn’t designed to win awards or revolutionize the horror genre. It was designed to be a haunted house on film, a monster-infested roller coaster that genuflected to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The novel actually gets a mention during the course of the film. THE FACULTY has always existed in my head as a 3 1/2 star film. Time to see if that rating holds up.
We open with Coach Willis (Robert Patrick, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, 1991) abusing and insulting his football team like any good stereotypical football coach. After he chases off his team, he is approached by someone we don’t see, and when he turns around his attitude softens. We shift into the school, where Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth, Lilith on TV’s CHEERS) shoots down requests for new computers, educational field trips, and this year’s musical because there’s not enough money. Of course, the football team will get their new jerseys and jock straps and helmets because that’s what the school board and the parents want. After the meeting, Principal Drake returns to her office, where Coach Willis is waiting for her. He attacks, and Principal Drake defends herself with a pair of scissors. Finding the doors of the school locked, Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie, CARRIE, 1976) helps her escape and re-lock the doors, trapping Coach Willis inside. Then Mrs. Olson attacks Drake with the scissors. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says.
School day. We’re treated to a smorgasbord of assault and battery, aggravated assault, assault with intent to maim, and assault with a deadly weapon, all of which are simply called “bullying” on school property. The main victim is Casey (Elijah Wood, THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, 2001 – 2003). While he is beaten by Gabe (Usher Raymond, SCARY MOVIE, 2013), he is scorned by classmate Stokes (Clea Duvall, IDENTITY, 2003). Elsewhere, Stan (Shawn Hatosy, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS, 2009), captain of the football team, is telling his girlfriend Delilah (Jordana Brewster, FAST & FURIOUS 6, 2013), captain of the cheerleading squad, that he’s quitting the team to focus on academics. Delilah does not take the news well. “What am I supposed to do while you’re on this yellowbrick quest for a brain?” she asks. Meanwhile, Zeke (Josh Hartnett 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, 2007) drives himself to school, roaring past school busses and screeching around the parking lot. Students leap this way and that to keep from getting run over. He immediately starts selling pens full of white powder out of the trunk. Ms. Burke (Famke Janssen, X-MEN, 2000) comes to scold him, and while she reminds him that she is the authority figure, it’s obvious she’s not up to the task. Further still, newcomer Marybeth (Laura Harris, DEADWEIGHT, 2013) is trying to find the office. With her southern drawl, she compliments one of the kids on her nose ring. “It really brings out your eyes,” she says. In the teacher’s lounge, we meet the school nurse, Ms. Harper (Salma Hayek, SAVAGES, 2012), and the irony is thick because she’s got a cold that won’t go away.
Having met most everyone, we rejoin Casey, who is now having lunch at the top of the deserted football stands. As he starts back to the school he finds something large and slug-like in the grass. Curious, he brings it to his Biology teacher, Mr. Furlong (John Stewart, I don’t need to introduce you to THE DAILY SHOW, right?), who doesn’t know what it is. With the help of Zeke, who is far more brilliant than you’d believe for someone repeating his senior year, they determine that it’s a new organism. They drop it into an empty aquarium at the back of the class, because all Biology labs have full but fishless aquariums “just in case.” The slug sprouts red tendrils and swims around, and an excited Mr. Furlong dreams about calling the university.
The teachers begin to act out of character. Principal Drake begins to call students to the office for an “ear exam.” Coach Willis keeps his cool when Stan finally gets up the nerve to tell him about quitting. Soon after, in the locker room shower, Stan is surprised by Mrs. Brummel, the school’s oldest teacher. She begs Stan for help, and patches of her hair and skin tear free when Stan tries to push her away. A little later on, Delilah, who is also the editor of the school newspaper, takes her star photographer, Casey (because somehow the school bullies don’t attack him when he’s wearing a camera), into the teacher’s lounge to dig up a cover story for the next issue. When Coach Willis and Mrs. Olson surprise them, they hide in a closet and watch the pair attack Nurse Harper. Then the corpse of Mrs. Brummel falls on them from the back of the closet….
Robert Rodriguez (SIN CITY, 2005, GRINDHOUSE, 2007, MACHETE, 2010, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR and MACHETE KILLS, both 2013) directed this one. Say what you want about the man, he makes a ton ‘o fun for the big screen. This project was one of his early films, and only the second that he didn’t write himself (the first was FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN, 1996, which was written by Quentin Tarantino). He has a great time with this idea, and his enthusiasm infects the cast, as well. It plays like everyone is having a great time with their roles. The scenes are busy and detailed, and infused with enough comedy to keep things light without overpowering the monster story.
There’s a little continuity slippage about what this creature can and cannot do. This is mainly apparent in its inconsistent ability to heal its host’s body. A more serious flaw is how Rodriguez has stretched the compare-and-contrast between the normal school and the infested school. The violent scenes of the pre-infested school feel too over-the-top for a suburban school like this one. The shenanigans that go on seem more suited to a prison yard– some of it rivals the pre-Joe-Clark Eastside High School of LEAN ON ME (1989). It does set up an interesting dilemma for the students, though, making them decide if they really want things back the way they were.
I’ve got to say, I enjoyed this one all over again. The only change I’m making is to upgrade its unofficial title to “My Favorite Monster Movie I’ve Only Seen Twice,” but I suspect it won’t hold that title for long because like the best roller-coasters, I want to go again.
Original rating: 3 1/2 stars.
Reassessment: THE FACULTY keeps its 3 1/2 stars easily.
© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon