The True Terror in The Faculty (1998) is High School Athletics

I was lodged so embarrassingly deep in the target demographic for the 1998 Robert Rodriguez creature feature The Faculty that I spent my pre-teen allowance money on its soundtrack CD. The first time I heard Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” was as a Creed cover on that soundtrack, years before the band re-branded as Christian Rock. The movie that soundtrack was cross-promoting was a blatant attempt to update the Invasion of the Body Snatchers alien-takeover template for the post-Scream era. Its Kevin Williamson-penned screenplay even features a lengthy discussion of Body Snatchers lore, leaning into the writer’s weakness for self-referential pop culture meta-analysis. As with Williamson’s work on Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Cursed, this winking at-the-camera dialogue is delivered by hip, young teen actors (Josh Harnett, Elijah Wood, Clea Duvall, Jordana Brewster, Usher, etc.) to appeal directly to a high school age crowd with an expendable income – the same teen-cool throwback aesthetic that currently fuels The CW’s Riverdale. Between those just-barely-older-than-me movie stars, their weirdly horny relationship with the adult staff, the film’s gateway introduction to sci-fi themed gore & body horror, and the marketing’s hard-rock posturing, I was helpless to resist the allure of The Faculty. But it turns out my vulnerability as the film’s target demographic runs even deeper than that.

The central threat in this drive-in era creature feature throwback is an invading alien force that burrows deep into the brains of its human hosts – turning them into mind-controlled Lovecraftian monsters who hide in plain sight as suburban high school teachers. The intended menace of this transformation is the spread & enforcement of Conformity, a satirical target that would have loudly spoken to me as a preteen nü-metal shithead (and one that’s increasingly hilarious in retrospect, given the characters’ unanimous modeling & marketing of a Tommy Hilfiger wardrobe). However, because of all the stylized, teen-targeted cool of this sci-fi mayhem, the alien creatures themselves register mostly as badass, fist-pumping payoffs worthy of celebration – especially in moments that opt for practical effects gore over CG rendering. The only aspect of The Faculty that can remain genuinely creepy, then, is the behavior those creatures illicit in their titular school staff hosts. Yet, even those results are varied on a pure horror scale, as the movie insists that the women on the school staff transform into horned-up dominatrix types rather than personality-free Conformity ghouls – upping the film’s appeal to hormonally-addled teens but muting its potential for genuine terror. One major member of the staff sidesteps that horny makeover entirely, though: the high school sports coach, played by the liquid Terminator himself, Robert Patrick. He remains an absolute fucking nightmare, no matter how goofy or dated the film might feel elsewhere.

Part of the coach’s terrifying presence in the film is due to Patrick’s hyper-masculine performance as an emotionless hard ass; part of it is that his gender allowed him to avoid the inhibiting sexualization that dampened the presence of fellow castmates like Selma Hayek & Famke Jensen. For me, personally, though, what’s really terrifying about Patrick’s onscreen menace as a rage-filled monster is that it recalls every single relationship I had with a high school or middle school PE coach growing up. As the kind of wimpy indoor kid who’d much rather watch horror movies than play football, I consistently had combative relationships with PE coaches throughout my educational career. I was terrified of them; they were not at all amused by me either. This culminated in being kicked out of PE entirely in my senior year of high school, when the coach reassigned me to library duty for that period (a blessing he foolishly coded as a punishment) and told me I would only pass if he never had to see or talk to me again. Watching Robert Patrick bully the similarly wimpy, unathletic Elijah Wood for daring to eat lunch alone on his football field was a vivid flashback to that conflict. When the coach jokingly recruits the nerd for track & field, Wood protests “I don’t think a person should run unless he’s being chased.” The coach retorts, “Get out of here,” ushering the twerp out of his macho domain. I’ve thankfully never had a coach follow up that conflict with an act of physical violence (represented here in Lovecraftian tentacled monstrosities), but I always feared that transgression was imminent, so this particular coach-wimp relationship dynamic taps into a very specific source of fear long buried in my past.

Of course, a burgeoning horror film nerd having a combative relationship with a high school sports coach is not all that unique to my own lived experience. If anything, centering the film’s source of terror on a scary macho football coach is just as blatant in appealing to a specific target demographic as the hip-teen casting & soundtrack contributions from then-bankable bands like Stabbing Westward & The Offspring. You can feel that screenplay-level machination in the way Patrick’s character is broadly portrayed as a sports coach archetype. He’s referred to simply as Coach and is an instructor in seemingly every sport played at the school: football, track, swimming, basketball, etc. Like Terry Quinn’s iconic performance as the archetypal Stepfather or Corbin Bersen’s skin-crawling performance as the archetypal Dentist, Robert Patrick transforms the broad concept of the high school sports Coach into a classic movie monster abomination on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or The Wolfman. It would have robbed the film of some of its other post-Scream late-90s charms and transformed the endeavor into something much more thoroughly horrifying, but I think they could have easily reworked the entire premise to be about that one monstrous villain alone – under the title The Coach. His performance is that scary, and the real-life terror of sports coaches runs psychologically deep for many horror nerds – something I had forgotten until I was confronted by the menace of this particular space alien bully all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

Come to Daddy (2019)

Fresh out of a delightful mid-day screening of One Cut of the Dead at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, I took a leisurely stroll down a hellishly hot Decatur Street to catch the next film on the docket, only to find myself unintentionally trailing that film’s star. Looking positively adorable in some crisp denim overalls and a patterned button-up, Elijah Wood was playing tourist along the riverside tchotchke shops on his way to the Come to Daddy Q&A. He was travelling in my exact path to Sidney’s Liquor Store, where I was headed to pick up some cold beverages to enjoy in Jackson Square before the screening. I felt like a total creep on that walk, entirely too aware of this oblivious stranger strolling just a block ahead of me, someone who probably spends way too much of their life wondering who’s looking at them and why. Luckily, the tables were eventually turned on me, as the film Elijah Wood was in town to promote was far creepier & more disturbing than any awkward eye contact I might have conveyed on that walk down Decatur. Despite his adorable exterior & chipper demeanor, Wood has a deeply fucked-up sense of humor and appreciation of the macabre – which is a major factor in why he’s so lovable.

Elijah Wood stars in Come to Daddy as a cowardly hipster & a shameless liar who responds to a reconciliation letter from a deadbeat dad who abandoned his family decades ago. The horrifically mismatched pair, drunken brute father & effetely timid son, enjoy an intimate family reunion in an isolated home on the California coast. It does not go well. The decrepit bully of a father mocks every physical & verbal communication his big-city hipster offspring dares to offer, bringing their tension to a point where its only possible outcome is physical violence. Then, just as the tragically mismatched men are about to come to blows, the film shifts the intimate dynamic of what we’re watching into a much more sprawling, chaotic kind of mayhem. It would be criminal to spoil exactly how the film unfolds after that first act, but I can at least say that its twisted humor & unrelenting brutality only become more severe as it veers into flashes of torture porn, slapstick gore, deep sexual discomfort, and all other kinds of fucked up Freudian delights. As Elijah Wood’s cowardly protagonist sinks further in over his head in sinewy ultraviolence, the picture begins to play like a farcical mutation of a Jeremy Saulnier picture – not unlike Wood’s recent turn in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, just creepier.

As amusingly weaselly as Elijah Wood is in the central role, the real star of the picture might be screenwriter Toby Harvard, who also penned The Greasy Strangler. Harvard brings the same aggressive, repetitive anti-humor and nightmarishly greasy Daddy Issues that fueled The Greasy Strangler to this more reality-bound picture. It’s not enough that the hipster’s drunkard father calls his son a “rat fucker.” He has to elaborate that his son “stuffs rats up his cunt” and that when he dies they’ll find “rat skeletons in his pelvic area, where his cunt used to be.” After the director of The Greasy Strangler floundered without Harvard in his own follow-up, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, I’m starting to think Harvard is the name Greaseheads should be keeping their eye on. Elijah Wood has been making a career out of funding & promoting grotesque art projects from folks like Harvard in recent years – producing titles like The Greasy Strangler, Mandy, The Boy, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. As playfully disturbing as his tastes continually prove themselves to be, he mostly just seems like a wholesome horror nerd who loves to make fucked-up moves with his friends. His presence in horror nerd spaces like Overlook Film Fest are entirely appropriate & expected; we just have to make sure to not ruin his good time by awkwardly trailing him down the street. We need him out there to raise funding for fucked-up, greasy oddities like Come to Daddy, so we better not scare him off.

-Brandon Ledet

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

Actor Macon Blair has made a name for himself in his two collaborations with up & coming filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin & Green Room, which has left him associated with a slick, low budget style of edge-of-your-seat thrillers. As a first time director in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Blair uses that reputation to his full advantage. He applies the same eye for real world detail and believably brutal bursts of unexpected violence that have distinguished Saulnier’s films to a refreshingly new genre context those two works only hint at: comedy. The violence in Macon Blair’s filmmaking debut is just as swift, brutal, and authentic as it feels in either Blue Ruin or Green Room, but is somehow adapted to a dark comedic tone that evokes howls of laughter instead of fits of nail-biting. Like a subdued, small scale version of The Nice Guys, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore finds a way to continuously surprise & delight, despite depicting realistic, out of left field brutality.

Melanie Lynskey stars as an Average American Woman, seemingly milquetoast in every way except that she can’t let go of petty micro-aggressions. Book spoilers, untended dog poop, obnoxious car exhaust, getting cut off at the grocery store checkout: our modern day anti-hero is disgusted by a myriad of tiny displays of selfishness, rudeness, and greed. She declares, “Everyone is an asshole . . . and dildos.” This Falling Down style of railing against modernity finally breaks her psyche when her home is looted by lowlife meth addicts and the police show little to no interest in helping her retrieve her stolen things: a laptop, her grandmother’s antique silver, and (maybe most importantly) her mood stabilizing medication. This inspires her to embark on a vigilante mission along with a similarly self-righteous neighbor (Elijah Wood in some convincing metalhead Napoleon Dynamite cosplay) to take down the den of meth addict thieves herself. Antics ensue. Horrifically violent, exponentially snowballing antics.

Because Melanie Lynskey’s audience-centering protagonist is unmedicated and increasingly unhinged, there’s a heightened, almost cartoonishly surreal sense of reality in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. The film’s vigilantism is anchored to a believable real world setting, but there’s something absolutely absurd about the way every hunch its protagonist entertains immediately pays off and she swiftly finds her way back to the creeps who invaded her home. The meth head monsters she finds at the end of this trail of neatly laid-out clues are headed by none other than The Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow (who was fantastic in the recent horror anthology Southbound), presenting such a grotesque personification of Small Town Evil that the film takes on almost a religious parable level of simplistic exaggeration. Elijah Wood’s sidekick vigilante is just as clearly coded as a Force of Good with an unbreakable moral code, no matter how much you underestimate him based in his rat tail, his nunchucks, and his lackluster “hacking” skills. The criminals are just as amateur and unprepared as “the good guys” in this allegory about the messiness of revenge and by the time the whole ordeal becomes a violent showdown in a cookie cutter McMansion & the nearby woods, every last player is made to look like a (bloodied, exhausted) fool.

As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often is, Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, and smoking meth in the woods all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle, not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes” boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone. It’s rare that modern comedies are as tightly constructed or as visually striking as Blair’s debut. Each scene feels meticulously scripted, competently executed, and necessary to a larger plot with an inevitably bloody climax. In a post-Apatow world where we’re so used to comedies sprawling into overlong, heavily improvised tangential bits, it’s refreshing to see I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore function like an intricate jigsaw puzzle where every piece has its place in the larger picture. It also helps that the shocks of the film’s violence and the humor of its heightened sense of absurdity cut through any of its lost prestige as a product that was dumped straight to Netflix after a very brief festival run. It’s a great film no matter what circumstances dictated its (practically non-existent) theatrical release and I left it newly excited for the careers of several people I already knew I loved: Yow, Blair, Wood, and Lynskey. They’re all in top form.

-Brandon Ledet

Cooties (2015)

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I’ve become increasingly fascinated with Rainn Wilson’s career choices in recent years. Every now & then he’ll put in great dramatic character work (like in last year’s excellent psychological horror The Boy), but for the most part Wilson’s choices in movie roles seem to amount to almost Dwight Schrute levels of misanthropic nerdiness.He played a low-rent superhero in James Gunn’s Super, a megalomaniac supervillain in the AI sci-fi cheapie Uncanny, a depressed schlub in the metalhead-oriented dark comedy Hesher, etc. It’s possible that Wilson is being offered roles on the nerd spectrum because of his years as Dwight Schrute, but either way his non-Office work has been fascinating if not only to watch him build a King Nerd catalog of niche projects. Wilson is a great actor I’d love to see get put to bigger purpose in high profile dramas from auteur directors (a Paul Thomas Anderson project would be a perfect fit, to be honest), but for now I genuinely enjoy seeing what niche, nerdy indie production he’ll pop up in next.

To that point, I was delighted to see Rainn Wilson star as a romantic foil in last year’s child zombie horror comedy Cooties. Wilson fills a role that’s more or less legally reserved for David Koechner in these kinds of productions. A small town hick with an ego that’s outsized only by his pic-up truck, Wilson’s villainous cad is a perfectly-casted alpha male counterpoint to Elijah Wood’s diminutive coward novelist protagonist. While working his way through the manuscript of a hilariously inept-sounding novel, Wood’s intellectual weasel protagonist returns to his home town of Fort Chicken, Illinois. Known more for its chicken farming industry than its mental facilities, Chicken Fort is sort of a professional step back for our lowly hero, who has been pursuing a career as a literary author in New York City. He takes a summer job as a substitute teacher along with a cast of eccentrics who most certainly don’t belong in front of children (including among them Jack McBrayer, Nassim Padrad, Allison Pill, and, yes, Rainn Wilson). This comedic setup is a little awkward & labored in away that can be distracting, but Cooties eventually finds a rhythm when it introduces its true bread & butter: zombie mayhem. An infected chicken nugget from one of Fort Chicken’s less-than-stellar food processing plants leads to an outbreak of juvenile mutation that claims all children in sight into its murderous army & dismembers every adult who dares exist in its general vicinity. Lots of gore & viscera ensue, as does grade school-themed horror comedy.

What best separates Cooties from the 10,001 zombie horror comedies of the last decade is its gleeful exploitation of its grade school setting. Its tiny child terrors are foul mouthed monsters before they’re infected by a rotten chicken nugget & turned into bloodthirsty cretins. They eat boogers, rough house, and bully each other with teasing like “If my butthole had a butthole, that’s what you’d look like.” When the titular cooties epidemic first spreads across the playground it’s almost mistakable for typical childhood play. It’s only until you squint closer that you realize the kids are using as severed head for a tether ball, eyeballs for marbles, intestines for jump rope, etc. Cooties may be a dirt cheap horror comedy, but it finds a downright lyrical, disorienting visual language in the spread of its central epidemic. You feel like a little kid who just spun too fast while playing ring around the rosie watching the film’s violence unfold. It’s fun to watch as a horror fan, but it must’ve been even more fun to film for the little kids who got the chance, given how much of the film’s violence resembles typical playground activity.

I could single out almost any performance in this film as being of interest, as its small cast of oddball comedic personalities are an eternally underutilized crew of talents. Elijah Wood in particular has been building just as much of a nerdy career & even cosigned this film as a producer. Still, I think Rainn Wilson’s role as the brutish alpha male romantic foil is the film’s most significant addition to the cast in terms of his career. There’s a point in Cooties when Wilson suits up in Turbo Kid-style armor using gymnasium equipment (directly referencing the action film suiting-up montages of classic titles like Commando) that pretty much seals his position as the films’ most interesting player. Wilson brings a highly specific form of hearty enthusiasm to the screen here is less like Dwight Schrute than it is like his horror geek victim in House of 1000 Corpses. I like to think that the reason he keeps popping up in these genre pics is that he’s a genuine fan & is more than merely collecting paychecks. Given the limited artistic & financial scope of films like Cooties, it’s doubtful that he’s in the nerd market for the money, but it does look like he’s having fun.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

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So a witch, a priest, and an assassin walk into a bar . . . And if you want to see the punchline of that joke play out, you’re going to have to lend two hours of your time to The Last Witch Hunter. I guess the question is whether or not the movie is funny enough to be worth that effort. How do you even critique a film like this, really? Do you judge it based on its merits as a self-serious action fantasy ostensibly aiming to build a franchise that certainly isn’t coming? Or do you enjoy it for what it truly is: a trashy throwaway trifle you enjoy once & then immediately forget? I’ll admit to enjoying the film well enough as a one-time-use trifle, but your own personal mileage may vary by how much enjoyment you automatically derive from bloodthirsty witches & an immortal Vin Diesel wielding a flaming sword (an image so inherently metal I could practically hear Slayer playing in my head both times it appeared onscreen). For me, that’s a pretty easy sell.

I will say this much on The Last Witch Hunter‘s behalf: it’s cartoonish inanity is far from half-assed. The movie’s sense of self-mythology is amusingly complex, as if it were trying to squeeze in volumes of source material comic books into a single feature film. In fact, since the movie is flopping hard enough to guarantee that no sequels will follow (despite its desperate wishes), a comic book adaptation might not be the worst future for this property. The story begins in The Dark Days of the Witch where Vin Diesel’s titular witch hunter gets his start by stabbing his flame sword into the chest of The Witch Queen, an evil hag made of tree roots who plans to wipe out the human race with The Black Plague in order to make room on Earth to expand her personal garden (seriously). In her dying breaths, she curses the newly crowned witch hunter to live forever, which eventually leads to a truce between witches & witch killers and the establishment of The Axe & The Cross, a spooky UN-type organization meant to ensure that “The peace endures” (a phrase that serves as the movie’s version of “May the Force be with you.”). Of course, this all leads to Diesel’s witch hunter being Double Axed & Double Crossed in modern day NYC when a strange figure similar to WWE’s Bray Wyatt or an extra from the first season of True Detective upsets the status quo by reintroducing black magic into the world,  a force explained to be “beyond evil.”

I’m getting exhausted trying to capture everything going down here & I haven’t even touched on ideas like “dreamwalkers”, “The Witch’s Council”, “The Witch Prison”, or the fact that folks like Michael Cain & Elijah Wood somehow got involved in this silliness. And I’m pretty sure I’ve mostly just included concepts introduced in the first act. As a whole, the movie has the convoluted mythology of a years-old game of D&D (something Vin Diesel is reportedly a huge fan of). The film also has a somewhat complex visual palette depicting a magical version of NYC with the general ambiance of a metropolis-sized absinthe bar. This is sharply contrasted with the old world witchcraft of insects, tree roots, fire, and endless voids. It’s all too easy to root for the witch’s side of the equation here (as if it’s ever not), since their evil queen’s dream of a worldwide garden is much more appealing than modern magic’s much more frivolous uses of selling cupcakes & promoting witchy fashion shows. Also, when The Witch Queen reminds the witch hunter that since witches pre-date humans, “You are trespassers on our world,” it’s a very convincing argument.

In a way, that’s what’s wrong with The Last Witch Hunter in a nutshell: too much witch hunting, not enough witches. Instead of constantly depicting witchcraft in action, the movie is much more interested in serving as a temple to Vin Diesel’s awesomeness as a mumbly action movie god the same way films like Commando used to do for Schwarzenegger in the past. It’s a lot of fun in this way. Diesel plays the part as a buff, action hero David Blane. He seduces witchy women, winks at curious children, rocks a Cracker Jack decoder ring, and uses MacGyver-esque tools like a glass of water & a floating staple in his leisurely witch hunts. In a lot of ways his cursed immortality undercuts a lot of the film’s potential conflict, but The Last Witch Hunter cheats enough on that detail to make it work. This is a hopelessly dumb film, to be sure, but it’s also complexly, ambitiously dumb, making for a mostly amusing trip to the theater. If you’re into Vin Diesel, wicked witches, D&D, and flaming weaponry, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot, but I’d also recommend bringing booze.

-Brandon Ledet