Episode 86: The Faculty (1998)

Introduced by Matt

El Mariachi man, and Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez, brings us a bodysnatching Breakfast Club via John Carpenter’s The Thing—filtering his kinetic action through Kevin Williamson’s preposterously articulate ‘90s teen milieu (real adolescents come off as grunting neanderthals compared to his erudite depictions). The Faculty (originally titled, The Feelers) boasts a panoply of horror-show jump scares and stings, sitting comfortably in class alongside the preeminent genre movies of the era.

Aged 16 for its VHS release, and armed with with my lacklustre attempt to mimic the spiky Dexter Holland hairdo of the day, I was fully in from the outset. The opening riff from mainstream pop-punkers, The Offspring’s “The Kids Aren’t Alright” was the perfect entrée, kicking in riotously over the now trusted Dimension Films logo—Bob Weinstein’s branch-out Miramax division, specialising in teensploitation horror, that had already gifted us The Crow, From Dusk Till Dawn, Scream, Scream 2, and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later.

In fact, this formative era boasted many a film I would loop on video, and imitate as scripts and college shorts. As we mentioned on our Wild Things episode, the television stars of the day had been unshackled, and their unfettered performances in more adult fare coincided with their adolescent fans’ coming of age; watching them exploding sexually on film, whilst simultaneously exploding sexually ourselves as keen movie-going voyeurs.

Here’s an essential Teen HORROR 2000 🔪 playlist, consisting of the more prominent memory lane films from that impactful, yet brief, 4-year run from 1996-2000 including Scream, The Craft (top Neve ’96 double bill, there), I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, The Faculty, Halloween H20, Disturbing Behavior, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (a death knell follow-up to 1999’s original Blair Witch Project, which served as the codifying playbook of the impending found footage sub-genre—although dismissed as unfashionable at the time, it’s perhaps a little unfairly derided now, in my book (of shadows), as a half decent teen horror, and looking back, serves as a clear as day representation of the final death rattle of a dying sub-genre), and Scream 3 (the subpar nail in the coffin of the franchise that started it all). Scary Movie should also be mentioned as it’s inevitably a spoof that undermines and ultimately kills a cinematic stretch like this—once the tropes have been underlined and highlighted, there’s really nowhere left for it to go.

But amid the duds, the best of that bunch undoubtedly triggered, and perpetuated a real movement—fronted by Williamson’s zeitgeist-defining voice, with its snarky, self-aware touches, and meta “rules,” seeing characters playfully negotiating the filmic realm of the slasher with unprecedented awareness.

“I always thought the only alien in this high school was me.”

Stokely, The Faculty

Typically, Dimension’s teen-targeted treats tended to hook us with their “hip” soundtracks, and The Faculty was no exception. The Offspring, hell bent on world domination with their chart-infiltrating, something’s amiss album, Americana, and their crossover from pop-punk to pure pop smash hits, “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” and “Why Don’t You Get a Job?” offered up “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” For me, the deal-sealing, nostalgia-cementing, end credit surprise of Oasis’ dying heyday B-side gem, “Stay Young” did the trick. D Generation’s “Helpless” pops, and serves as a raucous backing track to Zeke’s ubercool Pontiac GTO introduction. “It’s Over Now” by Neve rings out prettily, and is an instant emotional transporter back to ’98. Soul Asylum cover Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” quite capably, but the less said about Creed’s hashtag “hungadungadang” redo of “18” the better.

A pre-Frodo Elijah Wood stars as Casey Connor, who goes from masturbating to monster-baiting as the juice box sipping, straight-A student photographer, and outcast-pisswad-anal probe turned unlikely hero, and girl-getting, celebrity ladies’ man. Clea DuVall (arguably the movie’s MVP) plays faux-lesbian “goth beast,” and sci-fi aficionado, Stokely, and as her unlikely love interest, the most unknown actor of the gang, Shawn Hatosy, is star jock, aspirational D student, and captain of the football team, Stan.

Josh Hartnett, despite sporting the same dubious H20 haircut only a man as handsome as he could pull off, hunks it up as the nonchalant, too cool for school know-it-all, Zeke—a homemade hack drug (and fake celebrity porno tape) entrepreneur, and wunderkind-slacker contradiction.

Five-alarm fire, Jordanna Brewster (The Fast and the Furious), in her film debut, is the insouciant, raven-haired, smart-ass journo, and head cheerleader, Delilah (swoon). Robert Rodriguez has, thankfully, throughout his career, been a proponent for pushing Latin actors to the fore, casting everyone from Antonio Banderas and Jessica Alba, to Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin. Rodriguez regular, Salma Hayek (Desperado, Roadracers, From Dusk Till Dawn), returns (against type) as the dulled-down, stuffed-up, nurse Harper, after playing the snake-schlepping, super sexy Santanico Pandemonium in Dusk two years prior. Here her sultry charms are as well-disguised as the thirsty alien invaders.

One doesn’t necessarily think of The Faculty as a Robert Rodriguez film. Yes, Salma is present, but undercover, there are little-to-no gunfights—certainly none with the gravity-defying, Woo-esque choreography of Desperado. However, a Rodriguez disciple, with a keen eye for his auteur trademarks, can find clues planted throughout. Firstly, it was filmed on location in Austin, Texas—which later became the hub for RR’s Troublemaker Studios. It’s a bit dismissive, particularly when you know his key influences, to disregard The Faculty as a hired hand at work. Just because there are no Mexploitatian elements to it, doesn’t mean it’s not a Robert Rodriguez film. He’s a massive John Carpenter fan, and I see this as him slightly self-consciously branching out, and testing the waters by making a different kind of movie. This is absolutely not his writing, though—that is abundantly clear. If the picture had a voice, it would sound more like Kevin Williamson than Rodriguez, agreed—but then again, this couldn’t be mistaken for a Wes Craven film, either. There’s something to the Mariachi man’s articulation of images, and the fluidity of the visual storytelling. For me, it’s the photography, the pace, its jump cuts, the energetic editing—his hands, although a little hidden, perhaps a little tied, are still all over the film. It’s his first studio work that wasn’t a Mariachi remake, sequel, or a production in collaboration with his cinematic “brother” Quentin Tarantino, who he’d ganged up with back in ’91 in Toronto when their violent breakthrough debuts, El Mariachi and Reservoir Dogs, were simultaneously sweeping the festival circuit.

Self-funded by clinical research trials (see the “I Was a Human Lab Rat” chapter of Rebel Without a Crew), Bedhead was an early Rodriguez short, made prior to El Mariachi—also shot in that style, but in (cheaper in those days) black and white. The story sees Rebecca get a bump on the noggin and gain superpowers, which she employs to retract swift vengeance on her devious and cruel brother, David. Rodriguez even inked the animation for the credits, which I attempted to mimic on Super 8 and dishearteningly fell way short. It’s really fun and energetic, and again, although I’m no RR or Sam Raimi, it was immeasurably influential in getting me to physically pick up a camera for the first time, and run around with it—or more accurately, get pushed around in a wheelchair dolly with it.

Rodriguez’s lesser-known Showtime TV movie, Roadracers, with David Arquette and Salma Hayek, filled the gap between Mariachi and 1995’s Desperado and allowed him to hone his shooting skills before returning to the guitar case full of guns for Columbia with a heftier budget of $7 million.

Rodriguez wears many hats (usually a bandana), he operates his own camera, and cuts the movies himself—an admirable hangover from the shoestring El Mariachi days that seemingly stuck, in spite of union objections, which came to an ugly head during the production of Dusk Till Dawn. The slow, improvised zooms during takes, and ominous quick fades to black between scenes are an instant visual signifier of his work—my fave being on the late, great, Michael Parks as Earl McGraw in Dusk during its gripping opening sequence inside Benny’s World of Liquor.

“Guaranteed to jack you up.”

Zeke, The Faculty

As a 23-year-old, in spite of failing to take Hollywood by storm with my own debut indie feature, I found myself enrolled at The Northern Film School in Leeds, and during a brief break back home, I was such a devoted Rodriguez fan, I opted to see Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, by my lonesome, in a Showcase cinema on Teesside, decked out in daft, paper 3D glasses. My devotion immediately fell into question.

Then, in 2003, Leeds Met alum, “the gaffer,” camera and electrical department extraordinaire, guestRewinder, and firm friend of the show, Joe Mac, and I, took a punt on Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico at the city’s Vue cinema. In spite of a few neat flourishes—predominantly a eyeless, gun-fighting Johnny Depp, I was unimpressed by the sequel, and disheartened by the digital. When the DVD came out, my heart sank again as it appeared Rodriguez had completely turned to the dark side by including a seminar obnoxiously titled, FILM IS DEAD: An Evening with Robert Rodriguez. His arguments were sound, and logical, but a vinyl guy is a vinyl guy—film is film, and digital is digital; never the twain shall meet. To explain, I’d just spent the best part of three years at technical college, clamoring to get my mitts on a 16mm film camera, just like my heroes once had. Now I was being told, that Canon XL2s and Sony PD150s were, in fact, the holy grail, and not just a means to an end—and as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, once said, “That the future is tape, videotape, and not film?”

By 2006, another filmmaking hero, David Lynch, with his 3-hour DV opus, Inland Empire, and RR had both outright shunned 35mm, and outspokenly turned their backs on the slow, expensive, and unpredictable nature of shooting on film. Another one bit the dust! At least I had QT and PTA to cling to during my spell at film school, which saw me finally getting my paws on an Arriflex SR2 Super 16, buying new rolls of Fujifilm stock and smelling the celluloid. It felt like the end of an era, particularly at that time, as I was in the midst of cutting an independent short, shot on black and white 16mm, and debated the consequences of the encroaching digital movement at length with the director I was working with.

Rodriguez’s film-driven Ten Minute Film Schools had warped into video-hailing Ten Minute Flick Schools, that may well have been “Fast, cheap, and in control,” but also resulted in ugly, digital, and technologically alienating movies. My dedication during this newfound cause, which also saw Rodriguez spoofing himself with Ten Minute Cooking Schools, continued to wane.

It would take until Sin City in 2005 for me to truly reconnect with Rodriguez’s work, as that was certainly a film crucially born of the digital format, and it absolutely needed to be made that way to echo Frank Miller’s original stark, contrasty comic art—to make those iconic images move without any unnecessary alterations, or Hollywood embellishment.

I was so back on board the SS Rodriguez, that in 2007—the year I graduated from film school—when Grindhouse was announced, I can safely say I’d never been as geared-up for a film since my childhood. It felt like they made it just for me. At first, only knowing the titles of the two short features, I went as far as to wonder what the stories could possibly entail, and even scripted the first scene of my own Planet Terror tale about Mars, as I fell into the intentional trap that Planet Terror would have been a more expensive, space-set movie—a neat salesman’s trick often employed when marketing this kind of schlock. In fact, the Grindhouse, Planet of the Apes twist of it all being—it was Earth all along.

I bought a hardback book on the making of the film (something I hadn’t done since Jurassic Park in 1993), but much to my dismay, Grindhouse had no theatrical release up north. However, I excitedly pre-ordered the region 1 DVDs of RR’s Planet Terror and QT’s Death Proof as separate, extended edition versions, and used the already available (on YouTube) faux trailers for Machete, Edgar Wright’s Don’t, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving, and Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS (featuring Nic Cage as a crackpot Fu Manchu) to recreate the undiluted double feature experience at home. I didn’t see the full, official Grindhouse cut on Blu-ray until years after. As much flack as those films get, I’m still a fan—particularly of Tarantino’s slasher deconstruction, Death Proof.

Then, sadly, for the second time in his career, Rodriguez drifted away into sequels and spin-offs, and currently I’m not on the best of terms with his filmography, which is chock full of missteps and cheapo knockoffs. But the good he did back when I was a teenager, can never be undone. My original copy of Rebel Without a Crew: Or, How a 23-year-old Film-maker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player, plucked hastily like a hidden jewel from the shelf of my local Waterstones in Darlington, is dog-eared and disintegrating, but remains proudly on my bookshelf. I recall filling an entire two notebooks with my own extrapolations from the book, and also RR’s essential El Mariachi and Desperado flipper disc DVD audio commentaries. During my time at university, my housemates and I would periodically flip to a random page, and read where Rodriguez was with his production of Mariachi—our canary in the coal mine, and the exemplary example of a filmmaker that slashed through the red tape—or bypassed it entirely, on his own terms, and cracked Hollywood wide open. “Hero” is certainly the word. Rodriguez represented the dream I had—to make a feature by the time I was 23. Spoiler alert—I didn’t. But I’m still, to this day, thrilled to have the capability and the desire to make the odd short every now and then, purely as a form of self-expression. 2020’s The Self-Seers wasn’t quite El Mariachi in terms of international acclaim (although it was closer to Bedhead) but it did alright, and even finally won some festivals!

I compiled a playlist for The Faculty (scraping the YouTube barrel, if I’m honest, as there’s little-to-no behind the scenes, or making of footage out there—and another separate rabbit hole of clips below, dedicated entirely to Robert Rodriguez and his Mariachi affirmations and filmspiration, in the hope that it might provoke someone out there to pick up a camera and make their own movie. I did that exact thing aged 17, almost entirely inspired by Rodriguez, and two years ago I was driven (partly by his film school team talks once again) to cobble together a no-budget (award-winning) short entitled, The Self-Seers, with no-frills consumer equipment—refusing to wash away any creative problems with a “money hose.” It was an enlightening experience, and ultimately very gratifying.

I believe there’s an authentic, simplistic magic to Rodriguez and his teaching. He’s a no-nonsense guide, and someone who encourages a hands-on DIY approach. I really can’t undersell how vital his first steps were in terms of inspiring me. Perhaps it was someone succeeding without privilege, without nepotism, someone unshaken by the, “It’s who you know” fob-offs from folks, forever haunted by their own shortcomings—who can do nothing but pass on fears, concerns, and tales of failure, as opposed to focussing on the artists that slip through the net, and battle their way to where they need to be—to take it for themselves.

In a world full of naysayers, and a million reasons not to do something, this final playlist might just edge you into a zone where you feel you can grab a camera (you probably already own), tell a story, and post it online, or even enter it into festivals all over the world. If you’re a fan of movies, why not be a filmmaker? You might just have it in you. As Rodriguez often says, “Work hard and be scary.”

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