Sometimes there’s a movie … I won’t say classic, because what’s a classic? But sometimes there’s a movie — and I’m talking about the subject of this column, here — sometimes there’s a movie, ah, it’s the movie for its time and place. It fits right in there. It’s time for Movie of the Moment.
In the immediate wake of the Columbine mass shooting in 1999, the question of popular culture’s influence on the shooters became a massive part of the media’s narrative. Pop culture, especially anything marketed to teenagers, was suddenly put under intense scrutiny. Many films and television shows were delayed, reshot, or shelved entirely. Two episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer were delayed for months, and O, a high school adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, was put away for nearly two years. Idle Hands, a comedy-horror film that includes mayhem at a school dance, was released shortly afterwards without apparent issue, but the audience rejected it entirely.
The 1998 horror film The Faculty was never mentioned as a culprit. The film performed moderately at the box office, and wasn’t as indelible in the American consciousness the way The Matrix and Marilyn Manson were at the time, so it avoided any blame. However, The Faculty is interesting due to its timing. It’s not quite the last teen-horror film to be widely released pre-Columbine (that dubious honor goes to the little-seen The Rage: Carrie 2), but it’s the last film before the tragedy to portray student-perpetuated violence in and around a high school. This is a science fiction film, and technically there’s only one scene involving a school shooting, but nonetheless it serves as the last example of pre-Columbine media, before such films were suspected of inciting real-life violence. And while the film sees no issue with depicting high school carnage, it also exhibits a discomfort with killer teenagers before it became a flashpoint of concern. As a result, The Faculty seesaws between cheering the authority-killing characters on and exhibiting squeamishness when it comes to actually approving their actions.
In advertising the film, Dimension Films made much of The Faculty‘s Scream-era bonafides. It was directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Kevin Williamson, and the film’s marketing never let you forget that. Clips from the first two films in the Scream series were included in the trailer, and the poster had the same aesthetic as the Scream poster, with the cast’s heads floating out over black. Appropriately, The Faculty is at its best when it apes other, better movies: the plot is essentially The Invasion of the Body Snatchers set in a high school, with a Breakfast Club-esque spectrum of teenage archetypes joining forces to counter the pod people, and one of the most effective sequences is a shameless homage to the blood test scene in The Thing. It gets tangled in its own post-modern cleverness a little too often to be as high-quality a film as Scream, but it’s by no means the worst teen-oriented horror film of its era (that title goes to Urban Legend).
While the invasion begins with a sleeper agent high school student and the parasites spread to adults and teenagers alike, it’s the titular faculty who bear the brunt of the anti-alien counterattacks. It’s interesting to watch a mainstream movie where our heroes coldly shoot the principal in the head, and that act doesn’t make them out to be villains. Perhaps this is because the principal gets right back up again; death is ultimately impermanent in the film, defanging the theme that the kids are, as the aforementioned trailer states, “destroy[ing] authority”. Perhaps Williamson and Rodriguez realized it would be a harder sell to depict high schoolers killing each other – Williamson’s writing can be misanthropic, but not that misanthropic.
On the other hand, some of the attacks come off as downright savage. Jon Stewart, playing a possessed science teacher, gets his fingers sliced off with a paper cutter and ultimately gets a pen to the eye (said pen is filled with a homemade designer drug consisting largely of caffeine, which serves as the aliens’ Kryptonite). The scene with the principal’s death leaves the cast and the audience wondering for a minute if they’ve shot an innocent person before the alien parasite reveals itself. Clearly the movie is trying to have it both ways, trying to make the violence as graphic as possible while having its deaths matter little.
This back and forth culminated in the strange and seemingly counterproductive ending, which plays as if it’s been subject to post-Columbine meddling despite coming out months before. Through nearly all of the film’s runtime, there is the grim understanding that eliminating the aliens means the death of the human host. It’s discussed multiple times, and makes the situation seem ever more grim when a main character is assimilated. And yet when Elijah Wood (in a role that’s basically a gender-reversed Final Girl) kills the alien queen at the end, the hundreds of infected humans don’t drop dead along with their parasites. Instead, the plot abruptly doubles back on its own premise to a ludicrous degree. Nearly everyone survives, even when it would be physically impossible for the hosts to do so. Famke Janssen, whose character was thrown through a car windshield and decapitated, is now alive and well, the only hint of physical trauma being the scarf around her neck. The broad nature of the ending intends to be camp, not unlike the repeated and unacknowledged deaths of Kenny in the early seasons of South Park. But the camp conflicts so much with the previously darker tone that it comes off almost as subversive. There’s no amount of unacceptable slaughter as long as there’s a reset button and the status quo is restored.
And our heroes, who have banded together specifically because they feel like outsiders, are now devoid of teenage angst and suffused with goodwill. The gang’s reformation is like something out of a school counselor’s dream. How do you deal with bad kids before they pull out their guns? Why, have them join the football team and pair them up into happy couples! Even the school’s resident goth (played by Clea Duvall) is now sporting a happy smile and a lavender Tommy Hillfiger sweater set. This comes after an hour and twenty minutes of teenagers not trusting adults and being perfectly justified in doing so.
In the paranoid world of 1970s cinema, this scenario would signify that the aliens really did win and everyone is now an emotionless, conformist drone. The Faculty isn’t clever enough to pull that subversion off, or more likely simply doesn’t care to. It’s as if the movie is backtracking at the last minute, attempting to persuade us that none of these kids could possibly be a problem. It’s ultimately a false and hokey reassurance, especially in light of what’s to come just four months after its Christmas release.
Lauren Baggett has been obsessed with film since early childhood and possibly the womb. She is the unchallenged champion of waiting in line for movie screenings and enjoys popcorn for dinner.