Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Faculty Review

In 1998, Robert Rodriguez produced a perfectly-entertaining little film, a hybrid of teen comedy, scifi, and horror. It did not meet with high critical and commercial success, which is a mystery to me. Actually, the initial mystery was that I liked it in the first place.

The Faculty has many blessings, its cast being the vest: Jon Stewart, Piper Laurie, Daniel von Bargen, Christopher McDonald, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Robert Patrick and Bebe Neuwirth take on the mature side of a high school pic. The young side features Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Clea DuVall, Jordana Brewster, Shawn Hatosy, Usher, and Laura Harris. Embarrassment of riches, all around.

Moreover, The Faculty features all of the bells-and-whistles of Rodriguez's direction, but combined with Kevin Williamson at the top of his game. Kevin had just come off of the exceptional Scream, and his writing holds up brilliantly here. It's an excellent combination, as not only does the story carry you swiftly through its events, but the characters are fleshed-out perfectly and there are scares galore.

I'm not going to do the typical Half a Film Student review, this time out. This is going to be a bit rough and dirty. This movie has great horror, action, and acting, and I don't want to spoil too much...

We open on: boys practicing before the hyper-emotional high school football coach (Patrick). The camera jumps from role to role, and giving each major character their own little scene to set them up: Zeke (Hartnett) is a smooth-talking drug dealer, Stokely is the outsider-goth chick, Casey (Wood) is picked on so horribly that he might buy a gun soon. Everything is established, and the overall tale is commendably committed to the pay-off. This opener works beautifully.

The real pleasure of The Faculty is that it's a horror movie that's genuinely scary, which isn't as common as it should be. There are gross-outs, violent scenes, jump-scares; each one is effective and smartly-played. Nothing seems out-of-place or conflicts with the film-makers' job of telling a compelling story.

The next great part of TF is that it uses its tone perfectly. By that, I mean not just that it's scary when it wants to be - I mean that when they use comedy, or drama, or want a scene to be goofy, it's always carried off nicely. Few films are able to smoothly flow from the typical modern & aware Williamson dialogue to a totally silly character beat, and then over to a cue that pokes fun at classic sci-fi pictures, then back to being tense and scary. It's amazing to watch this movie succeed over and over.

It's like the emotional/spiritual opposite of the dialogue in the Star Wars Prequels - every line in those 3 was dry and dull, as if read by robots. Attack of the Clones' effort at creating romance were pathetic. Every scene with the kid in Phantom Menace felt stupid and uninteresting. Somehow, Robert Rodriguez created something so much better with a $15M budget. All the elements fold in neatly to entertain the audience and provide a real atmosphere.

So many horror films give you frightening footage without actually bothering to create tension. It's an important piece of the puzzle, as a lack of tension doesn't help invest you in the plots or the events that occur. In this movie, however, there isn't just a steady sense of dread - it employs a variety of fake-outs that really keep the viewer on edge and unsure of what will happen next.

Moreover, its high school background is used so well! Some movies take place in very few locations, not giving much "reality" to the places that we see on-screen. Here, every set is used well, and they all get good attention. We see enough new places that we're never bored, and later scenes are more effective because we're already familiar with the sets. The Faculty is, above all, a surprisingly smart piece of work. There are actual dramas that aren't this clever, much less well-made.

I wasn't inclined to like this much, and then I realized that this film is a blessing. I love the fact that it feels like a total throwback to horror from earlier eras. I love that it tracks the breakneck pace of Scream so neatly. And I love that it sticks to classic horror tropes, like keeping the audience ignorant of what's really happening, while also giving us characters who try to figure it all out - even if it's all just random guessing.

A few things stand out, in retrospect. For one, this picture is a perfect storm of talent in cinematography, direction, acting, and script. For another, it's a film that succeeds in the technical and artistic aspects of telling a story - a quality which has become far too rare these days, especially in genre pix. And last, this movie feels like the ultimate prototype for the modern WB/CW teen TV show.

How do I mean that? Well, most emotional scenes use "new" songs as a soundtrack to telegraph the emotional content. Two people can't talk without some popular - or young-sounding - band chiming in with some music.

Also, teen stereotypes are both referenced and turned on their head. Stokely's butch goth isn't a lesbian, and the dealer is a genius underachiever. Some of the teachers are out to get them, while others are real, reasonable people. Best of all, Marybeth Louise Hutchins from Atlanta is the new kid, and though she seems straight-laced and "typical," she's not judgmental, cruel, or fake.

The last common element is that all the major roles are taken up by ridiculously attractive males and females, all of whom get razor-sharp dialogue. I think Janssen, Hayek, and Neuwirth are drop-dead pretty. Hell, I think Jon Stewart is handsome, and I'm the only man I'm attracted to. I get a laugh out of the stupid way Hartnett's hair breaks on both sides.

Yes, when you watch The Faculty, you're seeing the standard for The Vampire Diaries/Gossip Girl/X Random Teen Show. True, a lot of this style is familiar from MTV's "reality" shows, but in 1998, even MTV didn't do all that. Hell, I've never seen an episode of The OC, but people tell me it fits the bill - and it didn't come out 'til 2003!

IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic haven't been too kind to this picture (6.3, 51%, and 61/100, respectively). The most frequent complaint is that it seems like a rip-off of many other scifi/horror offerings. Guess what? It doesn't matter that if it's a rip-off; this film is a fun ride that never feels dumb and pays off its emotional beats - job done. And in this case, done well.

An extra-special pleasure is found in the closing credits. They not only reintroduce us to the cast, but it adds several great moments that spell out the aftermath of the film. It's something I haven't seen often, and it's used here in a way that's very, very entertaining.

It's hardly one of my favorite films, but I can't recommend The Faculty strongly enough. It's a smart, engaging, funny, entertaining movie that revels in the low-quality expectations of a teen horror, while being so smartly-produced that it looks like a big-boy, serious horror/scifi entry. There is nothing about this movie that isn't fun and worthwhile.

Go see it soon, please - you can stream it off Netflix. Watch it and thank me profusely.

1 comment:

  1. The dialogue is snazzy, but the CGI seems to be a big problem in this movie.


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