Crap comes in various degrees: The Faculty, for example, is a crappy teen horror movie, but in director Robert Rodriguez’s hands it’s at least agreeably crappy. Rodriguez, who made such a splash in 1992 with his $7,000 debut El Mariachi, now seems to have resigned himself to being a hired gun for Dimension (Miramax’s horror-movie branch), cranking out stuff like From Dusk Till Dawn and this movie. But, as hired guns go, Rodriguez has good aim. Even when the script runs out of ammo, Rodriguez keeps things visually edgy. He may never be more than a stylish B-movie director, but I’ll take his B stuff over failed A-movies like Patch Adams.
Written by Kevin Williamson, the teen avatar of the late ’90s, the movie is an unabashed rip-off of — uh, sorry, homage to — the paranoid subgenre of alien-possession flicks, particularly Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing. (There’s even a rewrite of the blood-test scene in The Thing.) The setting: a grungy Ohio high school, carefully established as chaotic and rowdy at the beginning. That’s so that we’ll be alarmed when the rude, crude teenagers become pod people, marching to their classes in formation. Fine, but the effect is that most of the teens are so obnoxious that pod-personhood seems like a graceful alternative.
The teachers are beginning to act strangely, and some of the most popular students are following suit. As usual, the misfit students form the core of the resistance: wimpy Elijah Wood, surly riot-grrl Clea DuVall, faux-dope dealer Josh Hartnett (his drugs are mostly caffeine, so he’s okay), new kid Laura Harris, and two fallen popular kids, cheerleader Jordana Brewster and head quarterback Shawn Hatosy — they all suspect something weird’s going on, and of course no one will believe them, because if they were credible, the movie would be over quickly.
If, like me, you’re a horror fan, you’ve seen this all before. It’s been done, but has it been done well here? The Faculty is about high-school kids, so there’s a limit on how tacky it can get (no nudity, for instance) — it’s not quite a cheesy guilty pleasure like Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, which was penned by another hip screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. The difference between Tarantino and Kevin Williamson becomes clear with this movie: Tarantino knows the rules and plays with them; Williamson plays by them. The Williamson approach, it’s obvious by now, is to have a few scenes in which your characters comment on the staleness of the plot they’re enacting. Which doesn’t make the plot any fresher.
Except for the always-appealing Elijah Wood and the smartly cynical Clea DuVall, the teen actors don’t register; they succeed or fail to the degree that they sound like they’re actually talking and not rattling off Williamson’s hyperarticulate dialogue. More fun to watch are the possessed teachers, including hipster biology teacher Jon Stewart, roughneck coach Robert Patrick, wallflower-turned-hellcat Famke Janssen, dead-voiced Bebe Neuwirth, and just plain scary Piper Laurie. In their scenes, Rodriguez is in his element; he doesn’t seem to have much interest in the whitebread teenagers, and so we don’t either.
Rodriguez is in his element, too, in the special-effects scenes, when little sluglike parasites are burrowing around in people’s faces or when the big mama alien makes its appearance — the director is like a kid playing with monster toys (he’s usually like a kid playing with action figures). The better parts of The Faculty are when Rodriguez can leave the script in the dust and get both hands bloody.
His work here is playful enough to make The Faculty worth a look, but it’ll leave you with a question more disturbing than anything in the movie: At what point does a talented stylist stop being a director to watch, and start becoming a hack for hire?