It's Time for Your Exam
Kevin Williamson wrote Scream and, in the process reinvented the Slasher genre. Slashers had been huge business in the 1980s but, due to repetitive stories that led teenagers (the prime demo for those films) to get bored with the genre, Slashers had fallen out of favor. But in 1996, Williamson's script came to the big screen and it not only revitalized the genre but also created a franchise that has kept on ticking for nearly thirty years now.
Of course, it wasn't just Williamson that made Scream a success. Wes Craven was the director that he took the script and honed it into the film we all know (and most of us love). Scream turned Williamson into a successful name in Hollywood (Craven didn't need the help, thanks in large part to the Nightmare on Elm StreetThe brain-child of director Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street was his answer to the glut of Slasher films that were populating the multiplex. His movie featured an immortal character, Freedy, with a powerset like none other, reshaping the expectations for Slasher movies to come. series), but it also set a bar that the writer struggled to get over after his successful Slasher script. Sequel Scream 2, while successful, lacked the magic of Williamson's first script, and he wasn't able to come back for the third movie. Dawson's Creek was a high show... for a season, and then steadily dropped off. I Know What You Did Last Summer was a bland Slasher, like all the bland Slashers Williamson had tried to get away from. And the less said about Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, the better.
And then there's The Faculty, which basically posits, "what if Invasion of the Body Snatchers happened, but at a high school?" Taking a genre and slapping kids into it was Williamson's go to (see everything else Williamson wrote for, well, most of his career). Grabbing an alien invasion idea and putting teenagers in the lead seems like the kind of thing Williamson could do. The studio even paired the writer up with another solid director, Robert Rodriquez (of El Mariachi fame). The formula should have held, the film should have worked... right?
Well, I don't want to say that Williamson was a one-trick pony, but after Scream, Scream 2, Dawson, I Know..., and that seventh HalloweenThe franchise that both set the standard for Slasher horror and, at the same time, defied every convention it created, Halloween has seen multiple time lines and reboots in its history, but one thing has remained: Michael Myers, the Shape that stalks Haddonfield. movie, Williamson's well really was starting to feel rather dry. How many times could you go back to "killing, but in high school" and make it work. If The Faculty was anything to go by, Williamson went back to the well at least one time too many as this film just doesn't work.
There's a mishmash of ideas at play in this film, a whole lot of different story beats stitched together into a weird, Frankenstein film. The biggest issue, though, is that the movie lacks focus. It has too many characters, to many people running around, too much going on without enough actual substance to the story. It has so many characters, so many little plots, that none of it really comes together. Things happen, people die, and then the film wraps up with a too happy for its own good ending that, frankly, feels like it betrays the characters at the core of the film. No one can deny Williamson had big ambitions for this film -- it's The Breakfast Club meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Thing -- but the end result is lackluster at best.
The movie focuses on a group of high school students -- Jordana Brewster as as bossy school newspaper editor Delilah Profitt, Clea DuVall as Goth girl Stokely Mitchell, Josh Hartnett as drug dealer Zeke Tyler, Shawn Hatosy as football player Stan Rosadoand, Elijah Wood as nerdy kid Casey Connor, and Laura Harris as new girl from the country Marybeth Hutchinson -- as they slowly discover that their entire school has been taken over by body-snatched aliens. Casey is the first to discover the alien threat when he finds a weird insect in the football field lawn. He takes the bug to science teacher Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart), and they begin to think it might be some new species of insect. It sort of is, but not from this world.
Soon the various teachers in the school start acting weird. Students begin getting called to the nurse's office for "check-ups", and then they too start acting weird. Very quickly our students start to suspect they might be the only true humans left. If they don't do something soon, find some way to nullify the alien threat, it won't just be the whole school that's been taken over but the entire world. All they need to figure out is the alien's weakness... and just who might be the alien queen. Kill the queen, free everyone else, and the school is saved... they hope.
The issues with the film start early when it's pretty obvious the script can't decide if it wants to focus on the teachers or the students. We get an early prologue where Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth), gets chased around the school by Coach Willis (Robert Patrick), only to then get caught and (seemingly) killed by the Coach. Only later we realize she's been taken over and is one of the aliens herself. This sets the tone for the film, with aliens and body snatching, but at the same time none of our actual heroes are in this prologue so it spends a lot of time on plot without actually giving us any character development. This will happen a lot.
From there we are quickly introduced to our heroes in the most perfunctory way. Unlike in, say, The Breakfast Club where our diverse cast of students get a lot of time to develop and reveal themselves as characters, the students in The Faculty never get actual development. Casey starts a nerd, ends a nerd, and we never find out why he likes being a nerd. And yet, somehow, he gets the cool bossy girl, Delilah, just by talking to her once (when she might have been body snatched the whole time). Meanwhile, Goth girl Stokely suddenly stops being Goth the second she gets a boyfriend, but with no development for that change. She seemed to like who she was, so a sudden shift in her character is actually out of character for her. The film makes sudden flips to many of these characters, for no reason, as a substitute for actually putting in the work.
Meanwhile, the actual alien invasion story is a real mess. The students learn that the teachers have been taken over when one of the teachers, Mr. Furlong, suddenly attacks them. They chop off his fingers, revealing weird little alien tentacles, and then those fingers start crawling around the room. It's silly looking, but almost effective. But then they kill Mr. Furlong and, afterwards, never mention it again. They also kill the Principal, thinking she might be the alien queen, and then when she isn't, her own death is never mentioned again. Hell, at one point another teacher is beheaded, and her body and head go off, wandering around, attempting to join back together. In the end, when the alien threat is nullified, she's back to normal as if she hadn't been beheaded at one point, and the film doesn't even comment on it. Logic gaps are everywhere.
The film name-checks Invasion of the Body Snatchers a lot, but it actually plays much more like a dumber, less interesting The Thing. It actually has some fun ideas, with the various body parts skittering around and growing tentacles, but the film never really capitalizes on it. Its special effects are cheap CGI, not practical, and it lacks the necessary substance to really make these creature effects feel scary. It tries, but fails, to have any weight to its horror setting.
There is one scene that seems specifically designed to evoke The Thing. They're all gathered in the drug dealer's garage after it's revealed that the aliens are severely allergic to the drugs he makes. It dries them out, destroying their cells (and the host body in the process). So they decide that they all have to do a hit of the drugs to prove they're still human. There's some tension to this sequence, but even here the film betrays itself. It doesn't perform an real body horror to make any of the alien reveals feel interesting or scary. Meanwhile, one character says repeatedly that they're allergic to the aspirin in the drugs and they can't take it. Wouldn't you know it, later they're revealed to be the alien queen. It's like the film can't help but reveal all its secrets early.
Frankly, even the idea of the alien queen is a leap of logic the students make without any backing for it. One of them says, "well there has to be a queen controlling all this, right?" and they all shrug and agree. From that point forward they, and the film, assume there's an alien queen and there's never any discussion on the matter again. This isn't some small detail that can be glossed over; a controlling creature that can be killed to stop the alien invasion is not only a big thing to guess on but also a pretty big weakness for the controlling species. And when its reveal that the alien is some new student in school who decides to just hang around the only uninfected students for... well, reasons? That seems even dumber. Don't reveal yourself! Hell, don't even be among the uninfected at all. Just be smart about this.
The truly sucky thing is that, when the film gets out of its own way it actually finds moments that are interesting. Robert Patrick delivers a scenery-chewing performance as the coach and its clear he's having an absolute ball with his role. If his role could have been expanded, making him a primary antagonist for our crew of students, that could have added some serious heft, and entertainment, to the film. Hell, more time with the teachers so they didn't feel so perfunctory, could have helped, as would culling some of the useless kids to really build on that feeling of isolation and fear, a la Body Snatchers.
Obviously I think the inclusion of the alien queen is just a cheap way to give the film an easy out from the whole scenario. Getting rid of her character entirely would have helped this film a lot. Then either the students would have had to find a way to kill all the infected hosts or, at least, a way to kill of that which was infecting them. That would have led to more direct character interaction between hosts and free students and could have built more character interaction into the whole scenario. The way the film stands, the plot has an easy cop out and the film devotes all its time to exploring the alien queen without really exploring the scenario as a whole. It's a missed opportunity.
Moments where the film actually works are fleeting at best and they don't help to elevate this film as a whole. It was a mild success when it came out, grossing $63.2 Mil against its $15 Mil production budget, but there's a reason no one really discusses this film anymore: it just isn't very good.