Teenagers thrive on science fiction and horror flicks because these renegade movies with their improbable pulp fiction plots appeal to youthful sentiments about alienation and the lack of power that juveniles wrestle with in an adult-dominated society. Not surprisingly, "Desperado" director Robert Rodriguez's clever but derivative creature feature "The Faculty," starring Elijah Wood, Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, and Famke Janssen, ridicules those traditional authority figuresteachers, parents, and the policewho curtail adolescent curiosity. As scripted by "Scream" scenarist Kevin Williamson, "The Faculty" amounts to an entertaining but irreverent hodgepodge of "The Breakfast Club" meets "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" with a scene or two from "The Thing" grafted on for good measure. While adults may cringe at the messages that crop up, teens will revel in this spooky, sometimes scary spectacle. Inevitably, any movie celebrating a drug dealer as a hero is bound to arouse the wrath of either the PTA or the PTO.
The teachers at Herrington High School in suburban Ohio have started acting a little weird. Weird enough so that several students suspect aliens may have turned their faculty into puppets and are using them to stage a hostile takeover of not only their campus but also their town and perhaps even planet Earth. Of course, students have always felt that their teachers come from another cosmos, and "The Faculty" winks mischievously at this premise. Initially, nobody believes that anything adverse is occurring, and "The Faculty" unfolds like a hip 1990s' update of "The Blackboard Jungle" where the kids ruled the campus and the instructors were the casualties of an apathetic school board. An early scene invites such a comparison when Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth of "Jumanji") informs her burned-out faculty that only the football team will get any new funding. Everybody else will have to suffer. Forget those new computers for the classrooms; the drama teacher will have to recycle last year's sets, and kiss any field trips goodbye.
Things take an "X-Files" turn for the worst when Casey (Elijah Wood of "Deep Impact"), a geeky, non-entity that bullies love to bash, discovers an egg-roll shaped critter on the football field and lets his biology teacher, Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show"), analyze it. Like a gremlin, this squirmy thing mutates after they dunk it in an aquarium. When Mr. Furlong sticks his hand in the tank, the things sprouts teeth and rips a chunk out of him. What the students don't know yet is that the critter has already assailed their hotheaded football coach, Dick Willis (Robert Patrick of "Terminator 2"), and that he has attacked the Principal Drake. Furthermore, this parasite thrives on water, and eventually the entire faculty cannot seem to gulp enough water. Basically, this critter slips into your ears and takes over your body, a variation on Jack Sholder's "The Hidden" (1987), but "The Faculty" parasite adds recruits to its zombie-like ranks instead of skipping from one host to another like "The Hidden." Insidiously enough, the alien parasite plans to use the popular Friday night grid-iron contest to boost its numbers.
Scenarist Kevin ("I Know What You Did Last Summer") Williamson populates "The Faculty" with a generic cross-section of high school types played by a talented young cast of fresh but little known faces. Shawn Hatosy brings humility to Stan, the star quarterback who quits the team in a fit of conscience to improve his grades. As his girlfriend Delilah, who heads the cheerleading squad and edits the school newspaper, Jordana Brewster of "The Fast & The Furious") is appropriately catty and snobbish. Delilah dumps Stan because his newly found academic efforts clash with her need for prominence. Wearing more make-up than Elvira, Clea DuVall of "Heroes" impersonates Stokely, a moody misfit unfairly accused of being a lesbian. Although Stokely isn't really gay, she adopts the persona because she refuses to click with the cliques. Meanwhile, Zeke (Josh Hartnett of "Halloween: H20") pedals drugs and taboo videos out of the trunk of his GTO, but he conceals more brain cells than any druggie could, especially when he duels with his English teacher about poetry. According to the script, his irresponsible parents have abandoned him, so Zeke has the run of his house. Finally, as Mary Beth, the new babe on campus, Laura Harris deploys her designing Dixie charms to ingratiate herself with even the most dispossessed. No matter what she does, just about everybody shuns poor Mary Beth.
Nothing is either as simple or as straight-faced as it first appears in Kevin Williamson's ingenious script. Although the kids have found a cure, they must solve the mystery of who was first infested so that they can kill the parasite and free everybody. Complicating matters is that the alien's army of zombies is multiplying like crazy, and the enemy has our heroes surrounded, outnumbered, and perhaps even infiltrated. Predictably, too, Zeke's stash of narcotics runs low, and the kids have to run a gauntlet of zombies to grab what little drugs remain to destroy it. Director Robert Rodriguez generates sustained suspense as our heroes struggle to outfox the elude the alien spawn and rarely lets the momentum flag.
Bristling with atmosphere, issues, and surprises, "The Faculty" qualifies as a witty, rip-snorting, reptilian chiller that never takes itself seriously. Good paranoid thrillers that keep audiences guessing up to fade out are few and far between. Indeed, the characters get the short shrift, but action rather than characterization propels "The Faculty" to its nail-biting finale. Nevertheless, the filmmakers offset the lack of character development with cinematic and literary references to genre classics. Stokely and Casey engage in an illuminating colloquy about sci-fi literature and point out that Robert Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" beats Jack Finney's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to the book racks. On the other hand, they reveal that Hollywood has exploited Finney more frequently than Heinlein. Even if you abhor horror movies, you might be able to tolerate this playful, well-paced hellraiser.