31 Days to Scare ~ The Faculty (1998)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of high school students discovers that their teachers are aliens trying to infect the campus. As mind-controlling parasites rapidly spread, it’s up to the few left…an unlikely collection of loners, leaders, nerds, and jocks…to save the world from alien domination.
Stars: Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, Laura Harris, Josh Hartnett, Shawn Hatosy, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Usher Raymond, Jon Stewart, Elijah Wood
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  Oh, to be back in the holiday season of 1998. With the box office booming full swing with The Waterboy, A Bug’s Life, and Enemy of the State in early November, the Thanksgiving weekend had a couple of legit turkeys in Home Fries and the silly version of The Nutcracker with Macauley Culkin. Early Oscar favorites Elizabeth, Gods and Monsters, and eventual Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love would open in the last two months of the year, and December would bring your typical holiday fare like Jack Frost. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a new Star Trek film opened, as had The Prince of Egypt and You’ve Got Mail. On Christmas Day, Patch Adams, Stepmom, and A Civil Action called out to audiences that were done opening their gifts. That same day, another movie made its debut, attempting a bit of counterprogramming: The Faculty.

Often incorrectly attributed as the original idea of Scream-scribe Kevin Williamson, The Faculty was conceived by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel nearly a decade earlier. The writers couldn’t get their script made, but when Miramax off-shoot Dimension Films needed more teen-friendly horror fare, their high-school alien invasion story attracted attention and was snapped up. The Miramax head honchos brought in Williamson to add his distinct touch to the script and then hired Robert Rodriguez (Alita: Battle Angel) to direct when Williamson passed.

It’s not a massive shock that The Faculty, explicitly targeted to teens, would struggle at the box office during a traditionally family-friendly time at the movies. It’s a fate that the Halloween-themed but July-released Hocus Pocus knew all too well. Like Hocus Pocus, The Faculty has seen its status rise in the years following a respectable but not profitable run while in theaters. Popularized by a renewed presence on streaming services, the group that may have missed it the first time around is rediscovering it around the same time a new generation hungry for horror with a sly edge is claiming the movie as their own.

The Faculty has a doozy of an opening in the era of pre-title prologues. Principal Valerie Drake (Bebe Neuwirth, tick, tick… BOOM!) is wrapping up a teacher’s meeting at Herrington High but needs to return to her office for an item she misplaced. The school halls look much more ominous and angled in the dark of night; then-relatively new cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Lady and the Tramp) establishes a visual language for the film right off the bat. Encountering the imposing football coach (Robert Patrick, Endless Love), who is there for a “special meeting,” Drake is unaware that something has invaded her school and is about to come face to face with it.

The next day, we meet the rest of the faculty and students at the high school, a mixture of your typical teen tropes that are purposely not subverted. Head cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster, Furious 7) is the queen bee, alternatively admired and feared by most students. She’s got two men easily wrapped around her fingers, football player boyfriend Stan (Shawn Hatosy, Home for the Holidays) and school photographer Casey (Elijah Wood, Paradise), who works with her on the newspaper. New girl Marybeth (Laura Harris, Severance) is country-strong sweetness, making friends with loner Stokely (Clea DuVall, Happiest Season), who prefers to keep a low profile after vicious rumors are spread about her. Uniting them all in a way is Zeke (Josh Hartnett, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), a rebel with a just cause in defying authority that may have a crush on Marybeth but can’t be distracted from his side business of selling narcotics to the first-year students on campus.

All become involved when Casey finds a small, withered creature at Herrington and brings it to the school’s science teacher (Jon Stewart, Irresistible). Though it appears dead, it reacts in unusual ways once it comes in contact with water. Placed in an aquarium, it thrives and grows. Thinking there’s a story, Delilah and Casey find a way to stick around after school and study the creature but are interrupted by faculty revealing…sinister behavior. Realizing the parasites are living in and controlling their teachers (and soon, other students), the rag-tag crew of students eventually work together to take down an alien evil overtaking their hallowed halls.

It’s easy to see where Williamson added his specific touches to the script. The high schoolers have that post-Scream self-awareness and way of speaking that makes them feel natural and entirely cinematic. The bravura filmmaking that Rodriguez had become known for, starting with El Mariachi and two years earlier in From Dusk till Dawn, is an easy fit as well, with the director finding new ways to approach some standard plot machinations that keep things fresh. The Faculty is, in essence, a nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of the angsty teen schlock horror films that put drive-ins on the map in the late ’50s and ’60s, and the people behind the camera seem to know it. The actors also get in on the fun, with each big name (or soon-to-be big name) adopting the right brand of winking, understanding that they have been well-informed of the task at hand.

Speaking of the actors, I’ve mentioned the students, but wow, I forgot how stacked the cast was! Naturally, the genre was mega-hot at the time, so every agent in town was hoping to get their talent in these types of films to increase their status, but the mix here is fun. Along with Neuwirth (an inspired choice), Stewart, and Patrick (who nearly wrote the playbook on blank-stared nemeses in T2: Judgement Day), there’s Oscar nominee Piper Laure (Carrie), Salma Hayek (House of Gucci), character actor Daniel von Bargen (The Silence of the Lambs), and Famke Janssen (The Vault) as a mild teacher turned wild after her conversion.

While it gets repetitive in the middle and into its finale, there are still some pleasant surprises as it rounds the corner to several big reveals. Considering the number of Scream copycats arriving around this time (or to be in production soon), The Faculty is one of the rare outings that wasn’t trying to re-do what had already been done. That’s probably why it’s emerged as a title to appreciate and be given an overdue pat on the back. It’s a jolt of energetic entertainment thanks to a cast willing to play and a creative team interested in upping the bar for the audience and themselves.

Movie Review ~ Old Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a lost hiker stumbles upon an erratic older man living in the woods, he could never have imagined the nightmare that awaits.
Stars: Stephen Lang, Marc Senter, Liana Wright-Mark, Patch Darragh
Director: Lucky McKee
Rated: NR
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  There was a time when my hometown was known for its thriving arts community and for having the most theater seats outside of NYC. With the recession, a pandemic, and a long-time coming cultural reckoning, the past decade has seen a shift in attention to the performing arts. With it, many of the theaters and theater companies have dwindled. While I understand and support the need for change to bring about equity and inclusion for all, I mourn the loss of the smaller theaters that produced tiny shows where you were often lucky enough to snag a seat. Now, you usually have to travel to other metropolitan locations like Chicago if you want that type of experience. Even there, it’s tough to find.

I mention that at the top of my review for director Lucky McKee’s Old Man because it’s essentially a two-person play filmed as a movie. Oh, it’s fully a movie with the expected production design and composition necessary to make dialogue and performances come to life for home viewing. Still, I’d be intrigued if writer Joel Veach originally intended his script for the stage instead of the screen. Either way, it has a plum role for an older character actor with a sneaky arc that provides fantastic opportunities to show off without going overboard. Find the right actor to complement, but not overshadow, the lead, and you’ve solved half your battle.

The good news is that Old Man is a more engaging and entertaining piece than it starts as. I was nervous I wasn’t going to be able to get through it at all because the opening ten minutes had the kind of hokey, sub-level acting you’d expect to see onstage in an amateur production but not a feature film. Set in the middle of the woods in freezing temperatures, it turns out everyone only needs a little time to warm up because once actor Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe) settles in (and settles down), things start to take shape. 

Waking up alone and confused in a lonely cabin looking for his companion Rascal, the Old Man (Lang) bumbles his way around the compact area, talking to himself with reassurances his friend will return, and all will be well. He doesn’t see the small amounts of blood on his head and hands at first, and if he does, he shrugs them off quickly. He’s distracted anyway by an unexpected knock at the door. When he opens it, he finds mild-mannered Joe (Marc Senter, Starry Eyes), who speaks in a soft ‘indoor voice’ and tells the Old Man he has gotten turned around in the large forest and can’t find his way back out. 

Suspicious of the newcomer (his first guest in a long while, we gather), the Old Man lets Joe come in, but before he allows him to call for assistance, he grills him on why he was in the forest in the first place. Through these direct conversations, we discover that Joe may be hiding facts about his day from the Old Man, just as the Old Man withholds crucial information from Joe. Are they both sizing each other up as prey, keeping their secrets until the bitter end? Or will truths come to light faster than either intended, requiring a battle of wills in a slinky game of cat and mouse where neither is aware of what role the other is playing?

McKee is a director that’s had an interesting career path after gaining a cult following with his 2002 sophomore feature, May. Following that up with the spooky mystery The Woods in 2006, he’s been a bit all over the map in the years following, directing for TV and the occasional film. None have been as big of a calling card as May, and with good reason, not one of them had that same hunger and was fueled by indie spirit creativity. He gets some back with Old Man, but it takes a while. Once you figure out what’s happening in Veach’s script (and it doesn’t take long), you wonder how McKee will assemble the puzzle. It’s not exactly as you would think…which makes the watch much more enjoyable.

Senter supports his lead, giving a Crispin Glover-esque performance of carefully chosen words and deliberate movements. It’s all in service to the rug pull McKee/Veach have waiting in the wings, and thankfully neither Senter nor Lang tip their hat to a late-in-the-game reveal that starts to hang heavy over them. Thankfully, Lang is capable of shouldering some extra weight and carrying much of the film. Despite those rough first few scenes, he’s spot-on for the remainder, especially a pivotal final act. By chance, I caught Lang’s performance in Avatar several days later and was impressed by how much Lang (always a fine performer) has evolved as an actor over the past years. If possible, there’s even more of the grizzled grunt to him here.

A decision on Old Man ultimately comes down to a few things. Are you in the mood for a talky piece that might not meet the bar as the thriller it markets itself as but remains an interesting acting exercise for its two leads, or do you require more bang for your buck? I think there is a time and place for Old Man, but you have to be in the right mood and forgiving enough to stick out that opening stretch with my assurances there’s more to it than meets the eye. Speaking of which, a word to the wise. Keep your eyes open throughout the film on the background. I won’t say more than that, but McKee positions his camera and framing of the actors for a specific reason.