THE FACULTY: Aliens are Taking Over the World. Weigh It.

The Faculty (1998) – Directed by Robert Rodriguez – Starring Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Chris McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Usher Raymond, Jon Stewart, Daniel Von Bargen, and Elijah Wood.

I love THE FACULTY. It’s one of those under-the-radar movies that I champion whenever I get a chance. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Robert Rodriguez, THE FACULTY is a really good, really smart high school horror film that deftly plugs into teenage anxiety to create characters that are built on clearly recognizable types, but then quickly outstrip them.

While not as clever a script as SCREAM, THE FACULTY is does a far better job with allowing its characters to become more complex as the film progresses. High schools are wonderfully awful places where kids try to figure out where they fit in the grand scheme and teachers try to successfully tread water until retirement hits; students in high school are amazingly easy to type based on surface appearances and Williamson starts with what everyone can see to begin his character examinations.

Williamson’s script does two things to complicate his characters: reveal hidden truths and let new talents emerge. For characters like Stan (Shawn Hatosy), the captain of the football team, Williamson reveals that Stan is tired of everyone kissing his ass. He tells Stokely (Clea DeVall), the grungy, solitary “lesbian,” that his tipping point came the previous year when his ‘D’ on an exam was changed to an ‘A’ by the teacher because he had a good year. This torques Stan off: “I earned that D,” he insists. “That was my D.” Stokely also gets the reveal treatment: first by telling Marybeth (Laura Harris), the cutesy new girl, that she’s not actually a lesbian. She just tells people that because it keeps people away. Later on, in response to Stan opening up to her, she opens up to him, telling him he was a great football player. Stan is both as surprised that Stokes follows football as he is pleased that she knew about him.

On the other side, we have characters birthing new talents as the film progresses and the alien takeover threat becomes more pronounced. Zeke (Josh Hartnett), the bad boy repeating his senior year, develops a natural leadership ability. When the kids are huddled in his garage-based laboratory, it’s Zeke who insists they all do a shot of his caffeine-based drug that he peddles at school. And later, when the kids have trapped Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) in the gym and they’re hesitating to either shoot her or douse her with the caffeine, it’s Zeke who steps in, takes the gun, and sends a bullet through her forehead. Casey (Elijah Wood), the high school’s whipping boy, is allowed to leave his shell, becoming an important member of the group. He’s not the biggest brain, but he has the wits to see how things connect, and in the biggest turn, he becomes something of an action star when he’s the Last Kid Standing and needs to take down the alien queen all by his lonesome.

The one character who doesn’t really change all that much is Delilah (the always stunning Jordana Brewster), the snotty It Girl who dates Stan simply because he’s the quarterback of the football team and she’s the hottest girl in school. Obsessed with the school’s social hierarchy, she dumps Stan when he quits the team. We get a bit of a reveal in that she’s the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, but she’s not EIC so she can investigate hard hitting issues; she’s the EIC because she can use the paper to settle personal scores and embarrass people at the school. When she and Casey stumble onto the secret that one of the faculty is dead and being stored in the faculty room closet, she shows up at school the next day wearing glasses so she’s not as noticeable … as if that ever works anywhere except Metropolis. At the beginning of the film she dumps Stan because he’s no longer the top guy on the school’s social ladder and at the end of the film she’s dating Casey because he’s now the top guy, as the national media descends on the school to hear Casey’s story.

THE FACULTY brilliantly taps into realistic high school fears of not being cool and not being believed (not aliens). All of the kids are aware of the power of their coolness, or lack there-of, and keenly aware of their place in the social structure of the high school. In that regard, THE FACULTY has as much in common with The Breakfast Club as it does Scream, though like Scream, THE FACULTY is aware of the “rules” of the story. Stokely is a big sci-fi fan and clues the group in on the way these stories are supposed to work.

While the kids work together, they’re not all “all for one and one for all,” and their shifting importance to the group keeps the tension running high. The actual threat is a lot of adults standing around looking menacing, but I always felt the stakes were real in THE FACULTY, and that the kids knew how that. Crisply paced, tightly directed, and wonderfully acted, THE FACULTY is an under-appreciated gem.

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