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

Spy Kids (2001)

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I’m not always on board with what Robert Rodriguez is selling, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, his particular brand of of B-movie absurdity can be quite endearing. I think it might be a question of earnestness. he same intentional throwback-camp aesthetic that can be somewhat tiresome in titles like Planet Terror & Machete Kills work perfectly fine in more original-leaning material like The Faculty. In some ways, then, children’s media might be the perfect arena for Rodriguez’s schtick, since it requires a certain lack of ironic detachment. His first foray into the genre, 2003’s Spy Kids, is a case-in-point example of Rodriguez’s live-action cartoon hijinks & intentional genre send-ups working best without this usual hard-wink irony gumming up the magic. In a lot of ways Spy Kids plays like a feature-length cereal commercial (complete with ad placement for fictional cereal) that takes more than a few dark turns every time it can get away with it. For a quick glimpse into what I’m getting at here, check out htis clip of Alan Cumming singing the barnburner “Floop’s Dream” in one of the film’s more sublime moments. What the what?

In the film, the aforementioned Floop (played by Cumming) attracts the attention of international superspies/sexy parents through the children’s show/criminal operation Floop’s Fooglies. Floop’s evil deeds mostly revolve around genetic manipulation that turns former spies into horrific clown monsters he dubs “fooglies” & similarly ineffective world domination plots & extreme wealth eccentricity. When he abducts the parent-spies & threatens to turn them into fooglies, it’s up to their oblivious children to take up the family business & spring into action. The movie has a great deal of fun pulling humor from the spy industry’s goofier gadgetry (like an underwater SUV or an unwieldy jetpack), but for my money almost all of its best features revolve around Floops’s horror show of a lair. A virtual reality room that’s equal part’s Dodo’s Wackyland, Star Trek‘s holodeck, and the nightmare sequences of Ken Russell’s Altered States gives the movie a nice, surreal touch. Then there’s strange details like the “thumb thumbs” (humanoid flunkies made entirely of thumbs) and the fact that the Floop’s Fooglies theme song, when played backwards, is “Floop is a madman! Help us! Save us!”. And if you have any question of just how weird this movie gets, I’d like to direct you again to the “Floop’s Dream” clip. Go ahead. Watch it a second time. I’ve been practically running it on loop.

What I like most about Spy Kids is how the Floop’s Fooglies horror show is thoroughly mixed with its regular kids’ movie fare, as if it weren’t a nightmare vision of a saccharine hellscape. Regular old kids’ movie standards like poop jokes, McDonald’s ad placement, and goofy one-liners like “My parents can’t be spies! They’re not cool enough!” fit in very inconspicuously with the Floop-flavored terror as if the latter weren’t going to wake the pint-sized target audience screaming in the middle of the night. It’s an absurd, endearing combo that makes for  much more challenging children’s feature that what you’d typical expect from a movie with such heavy reliance on CGI & fake-looking, sanitized sets. I really should not have waited to watch Spy Kids as long as I did. Not only does it stand as an example of Rodriguez at his finest,  but it also gave the world the gift of “Floop’s Dream”, a clip I’m just going to leave right here just in case you haven’t watched it yet. It’s a beautiful thing.

Bonus Points: Besides the Floop insanity, I think Spy Kids is noteworthy for being a high profile film that not only gathering Latino greats Antonio Banderas, Danny Trejo, and Cheech Marin all in one feature, but also for writing in two Latino children as its leads (even if one of the actors they cast’s heritage wasn’t quite in line with that detail in reality). That’s a rare treat indeed. There’s also a great deal of implication that the “Machete” character Danny Trejo plays in the film is the very same Machete he plays in Rodriguez’s Machete franchise. That feature is no “Floop’s Dream”, but it’s a fun little tidbit to chew on, if nothing else.

-Brandon Ledet