Thursday, June 2, 2011

"I always thought the only alien in this high school was me": Robert Rodriguez's The Faculty (1998)

Even his most ardent detractors probably wouldn’t deny that Robert Rodriguez has had one of the most interesting and unpredictable careers in modern American film. From seventies inspired action films like Desperado and Machete, to his spastic children’s productions like Spy Kids, Rodriguez has been a hard guy to pin down. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Rodriguez has been this fiercely independent streak, and the fact that this is an artist who has done exactly what he has wanted to do since day-one and his best works, like Sin City, have shown him as one of our most valuable mavericks.

Of all of Robert Rodriguez’s films, perhaps none have been as unfairly overlooked as his terrific 1998 Sci-fi/Horror film The Faculty, an endearing and extremely entertaining work inspired by Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I rewatched The Faculty for the first time in probably a decade and I was really struck by how well the film has aged and I think it stands as one of Rodriguez’s best works.

Something strange is happening at Herrington High School. After a shy new girl arrives in town many of the school’s faculty members start acting odd and it is up to six kids, with nothing in common except they know something is wrong, to figure out exactly what is happening to their school.

Armed with a killer cast including Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster and Clea DuVall as the inquisitive students and Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek and Jon Stewart as the whacked out teachers, The Faculty is one of the best acted horror films of the late nineties and one of the most entertaining. While the many Scream inspired films of the period haven’t aged well at all, The Faculty still feels as fresh and as invigorating as it did over twelve years ago. Here’s a modern Science Fiction Thriller that balances the campy fun of the fifties with the hard-edged bloodletting of the seventies in a way that few films of the nineties managed.

Working from a script from the pen of Scream writer Kevin Williamson, Rodriguez shot the Faculty in and around Austin, Texas after the release of his first audacious collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn. The shoot was fairly quick and according to most accounts a pleasant, if hectic, one. Financed by the Miramax arm that Scream helped build, Dimension, The Faculty must have seemed huge compared to low-budget works like Bedhead and El Mariachi that Rodriguez had been shooting just a few years earlier but it was still a fairly modestly budgeted film at under fifteen million.

The biggest complaint often thrown at Rodriguez is that he is a filmmaker who takes his homages to his favorite films and directors too far. A common complaint against The Faculty was that it was essentially a mash-up between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Breakfast Club (for the record it includes a number of other visual winks to works as far-ranging as De Palma's Carrie and Scott's Alien). Like in Scream though, the characters in The Faculty are well aware of how similar their situations are to these works and they frequently comment on that fact. Is Rodriguez deliberately paying tribute to a number of iconic science fiction, horror and teens flicks with The Faculty? Sure, but that doesn’t mean that The Faculty isn’t a wonderfully captivating and entertaining film in its own right, with more genuine humor and scares than most of the many thrillers that populated theaters throughout the late nineties.

While Rodriguez lends his typically energetic and fluid directorial skills to The Faculty this is, like many of his best works, a showcase for his actors and they all deliver great performances. Like he would in Sofia Coppola’s mesmerizing The Virgin Suicides a couple of years later, incredibly handsome Josh Hartnett makes a wonderfully captivating ‘bad-boy’ and Elijah Wood is excellent as the unsure nerdy kid whose intellect helps the students figure out what is infecting their school. Lovely Jordana Brewster excels as the school’s pretty girl with depth, but best of all is Clea DuVall (one of my personal favorites) who is simply perfect as the lonely ‘goth’ girl who turns out to be one of the strongest kids in the school. For the title characters of the film Rodriguez assembled a wonderfully diverse collection of actors with Robert Patrick, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie and Bebe Neuwirth particularly standing out. Rodriguez favorite Salma Hayek has a relatively small-role as the school’s nurse (I would have been ‘sick’ everyday) and Jon Stewart has a couple of really funny moments as a science teacher who is involved in one of the film’s best kills.

One of the best features of The Faculty is its terrific soundtrack made up of Marco Beltrami’s eerie score and a number of modern takes of songs from the likes of Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper and The Who. Class of 99’s haunting take of Floyd’s classic from The Wall, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), is used particularly well here and gives the film a fittingly heavier feel than it otherwise would have had.

If The Faculty has one drawback it is the unfortunate decision to add some extremely poor CGI effects to the special creature effects of Gregory Nicotero. The obvious computer effects, so common and typically poor in this period of American filmmaking, take away from the film’s power and one can only imagine how visceral it would have felt without them.

Problems with parts of the visual look of the film aside, The Faculty is a sharply scripted, well-directed and wonderfully acted work that is well worth another look for any who haven't seen it since it first came out. Like all of Robert Rodriguez’s films, The Faculty received mixed-reviews but it was a small hit upon its release during the Christmas season of 1998, eventually grossing almost three times its budget. Rodriguez would step away from his adult works for a couple of years following the release of The Faculty in favor his children’s franchise (Spy Kids) but he would thankfully return to the R-Rated world in which he is most suited with 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He wouldn’t deliver another horror film until his Grindhouse contribution Planet Terror. The Faculty remains the only one of his films to not be given special edition treatment on DVD or Blu-ray. I hope this is rectified one day.


J.D. said...

What a great look at this underrated film. I do like it a lot but I don't know if I would rank it highly among my fave Rodriguez films. It certainly has a lot going for it, specifically the cast as you so rightly point out. I'm also a big fan of Clea DuVall's work. She was excellent in this film and has gone on to do some interesting stuff - too bad she doesn't work more or if so it so under the radar!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much J.D.! I thought we both belonged to the Clea DuVall admiration Society so I am glad to see I wasn't mistaken.
For me, I think this would rate right below SIN CITY, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and PLANET TERROR as my favorite Rodriguez. I obviously have a thing for his thrillers. Thanks again for commenting!

M. Hufstader said...

Goddamn, I really have to rewatch this film now. I saw it, but ages ago, and I don't think I realized how many badass actors were in it then. And I DEFINITELY didn't realize Rodriquez directed it. Gotta love that man--he's definitely unpredictable and always does things on his own speed. Great review!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much M.! I hope you enjoy it if you rewatch it. The cast is quite extraordinary. I was blown away by all the familiar faces in it as well. Thanks again!

maja said...

thank you for this wonderfully written post. i agree, there isn't enough love going around for this entertaining little gem. i remember it like it was yesterday when i first watched it. i had the huggest crush on josh hartnett, but, more importantly i discovered clea duvall. (yes, a big fan as well)

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Maja for reading and commenting! It's great to hear some more love for this film and for Clea! Thanks again...

J.D. said...


Yeah, I think that PLANET TERROR and SIN CITY are right up there as my faves of Rodriguez with DESPERADO close behind - still my fave of the El Mariachi films.

Jeremy Richey said...

I need to watch those El Mariachi films again J.D., as I have only seen each of them once.