Movies don’t come any more review-proof than “The Faculty,” a rip-snorting hunk of giddy, self-aware genre trash. Latest “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remodel has been cranking up MTV-demographic awareness for months via tie-in commercials for clothier Tommy Hilfiger, and, with little else in current field to waylay anyone between puberty and college graduation, there’s no reason (an inconvenient R rating aside) this E-ticket ride shouldn’t have ’em lining up well into early ’99.
Horror/sci-fi teenpic reps a meeting of minds between two talents, gonzo action director Robert Rodriguez and “Scream”-star scenarist Kevin Williamson, who’ve each made the style-over-substance, movies-referencing-movies equation their personal mantra. Together, they make a complete lack of socially redeeming value seem so much fun that “The Faculty” might well become a pulp classic. Don’t expect sober grown-ups (be they critics or other cultural watchdogs) to share the enthusiasm, though.
Wasting no time whatsoever, pic starts cranking immediately with a ‘roid-raging episode on the football field with Coach Willis (Robert Patrick). Afterward, he provides some unpleasant surprises for Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) as she locks up their suburban Ohio school in the company of drama teacher Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie).
Next day, it’s business as usual at Herrington High, which is to say it’s like a “Blackboard Jungle” comic book, with all standard student hierarchies in place and ’90s budget cuts making any hope of actual education remote. Brainiac Casey (Elijah Wood) gets stomped daily by myriad bullies; princessy Delilah (Jordana Brewster) rules both the cheerleading squad and school newspaper; her b.f. Stan (Shawn Hatosy) is a star jock who’d rather be something kinder-gentler. Punky loner Stokely (Clea DuVall) returns all the hate vibes she gets, while sardonic Zeke (Josh Harnett) holds court as everyone’s drug dealer/manufacturer. Notable new kid in town is friendly blonde Southern belle Marybeth (Laura Harris).
Casey discovers a piece of icky tissue on the playing field that does very odd things when moistened in Mr. Furlong’s (Jon Stewart) biology class. Then Casey and Stan witness something even stranger in the boys’ locker room, and, a blink of an eye later, Casey and Delilah narrowly survive more alarming events in the teachers’ lounge.
By now Stokely, Zeke and Marybeth have joined this nucleus of previously divided youths who believe something very wrong is going on at the school. Film’s pace is frantic yet so well-engineered that viewer buys the notion that these students are the only non-“snatched” bodies left about five minutes hence (as a queasy escape from campus makes clear).
Williamson knows contempo auds will accept genre conventions without bothersome plot explication (though that tactic must come across as cheeky rather than just dumb). Therefore, where the alien infestation comes from, what its “master plan” is, etc., remain moot MIA details. Nor does it matter whether or not the eventual gross-out creature F/X looks phony (it does), so long as the creatures’ deployment is exciting (and how). But “The Faculty” works hard at mixing a canny cocktail of cineastic in-jokes, affectionate teenploitation and high-octane suspense that’s as enjoyable as it is impossible to take seriously.
Unlike MGM’s production-compromised, commercially disappointing “Disturbing Behavior” earlier this year, this similar effort is in full control of its admittedly paper-thin story, characters and p.o.v. Results may not be Nobel Prize material, but they’re zesty and cogent. Williamson playfully includes subversive narrative elements (at once pro-recreational drug, pro-scholastic and anti-homophobic) when not paying key homage to “The Breakfast Club” as well as myriad horror/sci-fi classics. As usual, dialogue is bright, although it is so of-the-moment it should carry an expiration date.
For his part, helmer-editor Rodriguez delivers another hyperconfident feature-length adrenaline rush, albeit one thankfully freed from the more irksome macho-iconatry fixations of his prior studio projects “Desperado” and “From Dusk Till Dawn.”
With the exception of juve veteran Wood (“The Ice Storm,” “Deep Impact”) and R&B recording star Usher (cast as a menacing football jock), youthful players are relative unknowns. Each makes a smart impression. Adult roles are contrastingly filled by familiar faces, with Laurie, Patrick, and others joined most memorably on staff by Famke Janssen and Rodriguez regular Salma Hayek. Each gets at least one opportunity to go way over the top with gleeful, shape-shifting villainy.
Rising fast from indie features, lenser Enrique Chediak gives pic an efficient look that recalls ’50s sci-fiers in its teasing dependence on shadow play. Other tech credits are solid, audio side dominated by the requisite ready-made hit-soundtrack rock tunes. Though it marks a break from unity title-wise, “The Faculty” is crafty and distinctive enough to rate full inclusion in the honor roll of “Body Snatcher” versions to date by Don Siegel, Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrara. Why can’t every high-concept recycle so well?