2018 Film Essays

Leave Them Kids Alone: The Subversive Commentary of ‘The Faculty’

The experience of adolescence is an alien — and alienating — one for just about every human being. It’s an emotional and hormonal minefield, a series of rapid psychological changes that accompany a bundle of physiological changes. To make matters worse, it occurs in an environment where everyone else is going through the process simultaneously. It’s no wonder, then, that so many horror stories are set in and around high school, exploiting day to day anxieties of the young students as well as their adult charges who struggle to control and understand them. One of the most common (as well as constant) struggles to be had during high school is establishing one’s identity, trying to find out where, if at all, you fit in the social order. The great irony is that many teenagers struggle to fit in, changing themselves to be something they’re not, while at the same time lamenting that everyone else isn’t already just like them. It’s a question that extends into life beyond the school system, with no easy answers in sight. But… what if there was an easy answer? What if someone — something — were able to provide a solution that would be not only permanent, but preferable?

That hook is what makes 1998’s The Faculty still relevant and compelling 20 years on, as it uses a well-worn science-fiction concept to comment intelligently on the experience of adolescence. Beginning as a spec script from writers David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel, the film got picked up by Miramax’s Dimension Films label, who had just made two Scream movies back to back and were voraciously producing other teen-oriented horror films. The studio gave the script to their in-house teen horror guru Kevin Williamson, with the idea that the writer would rewrite the movie in his hip, self-aware, pop culture trivia-loving style. When Williamson passed on directing, the reins were given to a still-on-the-rise Robert Rodriguez. With early Geek Culture figureheads like Williamson and Rodriguez involved, The Faculty could have easily been a lazy hodgepodge of references (indeed, there are blatantly obvious “homages” to films like 1982’s The Thing and 1985’s Lifeforce in the movie), but the core concept remains strong enough that these references add to the film’s charm rather than detract. The movie acknowledges its debt to Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers (and, in a bit of Williamson snobbery, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters novel from 1951) by having its high school heroes Casey (Elijah Wood), Stokely (Clea DuVall), Stan (Shawn Hatosy), Zeke (Josh Hartnett), Delilah (Jordana Brewster) and Marybeth (Laura Harris) frequently discuss the reasons and implications behind their school being invaded by an aquatic parasite from another planet. Most interestingly, while the themes of Finney and Heinlein are still present (a fear of conformity and loss of individuality), The Faculty makes a compelling case that succumbing to a parasite makeover isn’t a bad thing, but is instead a better alternative to the uncertainty and discord of repressed, rigid, hateful humankind. 

The Faculty isn’t a complete contrast to “body snatchers” films, as there is still an overlapping subtext regarding conformity versus individuality. The largest instance of this is the film’s concept — that the first humans to be assimilated in the small Ohio town where it takes place are the high school’s faculty members. The American school system has been fairly criticized over the decades for its intentional stifling of individual expression under the guise of preparing teens for adult life. It’s an inspired setting for a “body snatchers” tale, as high school can be seen as a place where those in charge wish to train and transform their students into copies of themselves to send out into the world. Rodriguez captures moments and shots that exemplify this, such as a brief scene involving an assimilated classroom all raising their hands in unison, which must double as some authoritarian teacher’s fantasy. Early in the film, the overworked and uncaring history teacher, Mr. Tate (Daniel Von Bargen), mistakenly believes the class to be on a chapter discussing how a strong nation is built through conformity, when Stan informs him they’re actually on the next chapter, which concerns “individual action.” The movie features on its soundtrack a cover version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2,” which famously includes the lyric “we don’t need no thought control” in a song set in a dystopian classroom*. Surprisingly, even the film’s teachers, who are attempting to pass on the culturally agreed upon values and government-approved textbook knowledge, are repressed, kept in check by a cold principal (Bebe Neuwirth) who is only able to give support to the school’s popular football team. When the first two members of the faculty are assimilated by the alien at the start of the film, they viciously attack Principal Drake, letting out a satisfied intonation of “I always wanted to do that” afterward. The film may portray the faculty as the initial villains, yet it’s nuanced enough to show the effects of repression and oppression on them, too.

However, The Faculty adds a wrinkle to its parasitic creature that sets it apart from most alien assimilation stories, one that is closely tied with the film’s setting and teenage viewpoint. All of the cinematic adaptations of The Body Snatchers contain a scene wherein a pod person explains to the human hero that being a pod is a better, more wonderful thing than being human, simply because all emotions and anxieties and desires are turned off. (It wasn’t until 2007’s The Invasion, nine years after The Faculty, that a pod takeover was presented as an ambiguously favorable alternative, as that film clumsily posits that perhaps an aggressive and warmongering species like mankind shouldn’t be so quick to champion its raging emotions and individuality.) In The Faculty, the personalities and mannerisms of the assimilated are indeed changed, but not in a draining, conforming way. Instead, the victims are improved, their flaws gone, neuroses solved and desires fulfilled. Rather than a bleak, emotionless society full of automatons, this alien parasite promises a world where everyone gets to express who they are and be accepted for it. The Faculty’s ultimate twist, that the alien queen responsible for the invasion is the “new girl” Marybeth, neatly explains the rationale behind showing her victims as discontented and antagonistic before being transformed and loving and fulfilled after. While it’s not made clear just how old the being calling itself Marybeth is, she’s chosen the form and personality of a teenage girl, one who is capable of having her feelings hurt by the heroes’ resistance, who only wants a world “without anger, without fear, without attitude.” It’s a similar promise to the pod people’s, yet the film shows Marybeth’s words have merit — once changed, a mousy teacher bossed around by her students becomes a confident woman, a perpetually angry coach becomes perpetually joyful, a constantly fighting couple become gentle and loving, and so on. With so many perks to being assimilated, Casey’s desperate fight to stop Marybeth seems almost self-destructive in comparison, making the method of Marybeth’s defeat — a drug designed by the preternaturally smart Zeke that “dries out” the aquatic alien — an intriguing metaphor. Earlier, in an echo of The Thing’s blood test scene, the teens all take the drug to prove they’re not an alien. In this way, the kids are being willfully self-destructive, with their choice to damage their bodies representing a rebellion against the pyrrhic gift Marybeth offers them, and the drug ultimately allows them to stop an unasked for if desirable takeover.

Or does it? The Faculty’s ending, on the surface, seems like an unambiguously happy one. The experience with Marybeth has permanently changed the characters for the better, as each of them are now living different and fulfilling lives, ending up with the love interest of their choice, and so on. Yet, in Williamson’s script draft dated January 5th, 1998, just before the “One Month Later” title card that precedes the denouement, Stokely mentions that “when [the alien slugs] are in you — you can’t feel them,” to which Zeke replies “if you don’t know — what does it matter?” The script then continues to a version of the final scene, one where, before the no-longer wussy Casey consensually embraces the former queen bee Delilah, he’s seen lapping up a large amount of water from the water fountain, just as the assimilated did earlier in the film. In this light, the final montage seems more ominous, with the characters getting their rewards of new lives not from internal motivation but from the personality changing parasite, making the final lines about how everything at the school has “changed” more pointedly spooky (despite the upbeat late 90s rock tunes blaring on the soundtrack). Whether an alternate ending that more closely followed Williamson’s draft was shot is unknown, but the theatrical version makes it seem like it was at least considered.

Even though that film’s ending isn’t particularly ominous, it’s still ambiguous, and as such it works to solidify the themes of identity from an adolescent viewpoint. The alien parasite that nearly consumes Herrington High School is one that makes a human being undergo large psychological and physiological changes, attempting a worldwide invasion by sneaking in “the back door” via people who are already undergoing a similar process, and who may or may not be going through the process her-(it?) self. Though the film opts for visceral thrills more than psychological horror, its creature is arguably more disturbing then the pod people of Finney’s work — rather than an external pod birthing a simulacrum, “Marybeth” gets under your skin, absorbs you, and changes you from the inside. From then on, you’re no longer the same. Perhaps that’s one reason why one of the end credit songs** contains the lyric “stay young… cause we know just what we are.” After you grow up, that’s not so easy to know anymore. 

*The film had a tie-in promotion with the Tommy Hilfiger clothing brand, a 90s staple of the “in-crowd” and upper class. I personally saw the brand’s popularity as a conformist trend, which made its affiliation with the film that much more hilariously ironic.

**One of the other songs during the end credits is a cover of David Bowie’s “Changes,” another sly choice.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.