The Faculty (1998)
The Faculty is an interesting piece of nostalgia because I think Robert Rodriguez was trying to make a “90s movie” during the 1990s. That’s not to say he was trying to be cutting edge, or to fit the criteria of hipness at the time the film was made. I think he set out to make a film that the people of the future would look back on as a 90s movie. Either that, or he didn’t have much clout yet and a bunch of Armani ponytail guys dictated the details of the film over their car phones, reading the latest focus group data from their Newtons. Did those guys have ponytails in the 80s or the 90s? Oh well, I’m not a scientist.
High School is the optimal setting for such an endeavor because it is the most stridently contemporary corner of human existence. Decades later, when it takes us a minute to remember what year it is or how old we are, we still identify our cohorts by year of graduation (one of the bands on the soundtrack is Class of ‘99). And being 32, 33, 34 and 35 are pretty much the same thing, while being a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior are entirely different phases of existence. You might completely change the way you dress, the music you listen to and the people you associate with from one year to the next. It is your generation’s turn to put a stamp on a period because, as you have yet to establish a strong personal identity, music, fashion, affiliation and affectation are important to you.
The movie opens with a song by The Offspring. I realize they were initially signed to Epitaph, but they were still epitomized the glossy, fake punk that swept the globe like a monkey plague. Continue the “punk” and cut unironically to high school football. Coached by Robert Patrick, Dogget from the X-Files, probably the definitive 90s show. While it’s not strictly 90s, it’s pretty cool that John Stewart is one of the teachers (you can tell he’s a cool teacher because he has a goatee). It almost goes without saying that Clea DuVall is in the movie, wearing tons of eyeliner. Many more recognizable faces: Bebe Neuwirth, Christopher “Shooter McGavin” McDonald, Jordana Brewster, Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek, Elijah Wood
As we pan though Herrington High School, kids are constantly bumping into each other and dropping fresh put downs, like “walk much?” That’s because today’s youth is so much angrier and edgier than they were in your day. Josh Hartnett sells other students fake VHS tapes of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Neve Campbell naked. Not to mention his inventory of, “magnum sized” condoms. Oh, does a high school kid having a condom freak you out? Because it is completely normal to us. A girl has a nose ring connected to her earing by a chain. They use new drugs and the nerd has mastered cutting edge technology like robots and the internet. One girl even says she’s a lesbian. That’s right! A lesbian! (Though she later admits this is a cover because it’s not quite time for real gays yet.)
The premise is simply that aliens have taken over the bodies of the adults and they are trying conquer humanity. It’s obvious, but it works. The educational system is a tool for beating you into conformity.The adults have already compromised, given up, sold out or bought in. Alienated from their natural selves. They resent the freedom of youth and do everything they can to squash it and mold the students into responsible adults, mindless consumers, adherents to hierarchy. The druggies, jocks, nerds and goths can only prevail by casting aside false divisions and uniting against the forces of oppression. Rodriguez and writer, Kevin Williamson, run with all these themes cleverly. The librarian holding up a “quiet” sign as the students uncover the truth beneath alien propaganda. The football team as shock troops. The fact that the aliens can be defeated with drugs. It’s funny and well put together with plenty of novelty deaths, the best of which capitalizes on the universal phobia of being caught under the mechanically folding bleachers.
Tales From The Crypt: Bordello of Blood (1996)
When people talk about the greatest TV shows of all time, they usually neglect Tales From The Crypt, though few shows have been as entertaining. Sadly, its legacy seems to be hilariously insulting someone by comparing their appearance to that of The Crypt Keeper. For whatever reason, pro athletes who weren’t born when the show was airing seem to lean on that one a lot. Maybe they all pay the same forty-one year old guy to write their tweets. Or maybe the old episodes air on BET and I don’t know about it. And, while Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight enjoys a bit of a cult following, Bordello of Blood is fading into undeserved obscurity.
Now, you might say, “nobody in Bordello of Blood can act. Everyone is either a stand up comedian, a model or Corey Feldman.” Or maybe you’ll say, “there were script problems from day one. Like, if that one chick is turned into a vampire, how come she…” Or maybe some of the dialogue doesn’t click for you. Perhaps when one boy says to another, “man, I don’t like this,” you thought it was too understated, since he sounds like he’s afraid of being caught cheating on a geometry test and they are being forced at gunpoint to enter a coffin that is aimed at an incinerator.
All irrelevant. Like the newspaper critics of the day, you’re complaining about the garnish and plating of a pile of chili cheese fries. Bordello of Blood is a good movie because it succeeds on its own terms. It delivers what is promised. And Corey Feldman is pretty good in it.
The movie begins with a midget leading an expedition through the jungles of South America to discover a hibernating sexy, vampire. After he brings her back to to life (“What can I say boys? I know how to turn a woman on.”) and she devours everyone else, the midget takes her to the U.S. to open a bordello (of blood) in a funeral parlor operated by a ghoulish director who fondles dead women and savors the aroma of death farts as a connoisseur. After the metalhead brother of a sexy church lady goes missing she hires a seedy private eye who eventually teams up with a televangelist (who, in an interesting twist, turns out to be a pretty good guy) to battle the vampires. And you’re going to come with complaints about acting and plot holes? I wanted this movie to have shabby acting and plot holes.
There are layers of nostalgia here. The voice of Tales From The Crypt comes from a generation of writers and directors harkening to the movies of their youth. Lucas and Spielberg are the most famous examples, but many others were doing it and it came to be a marker of the era. The old monster and adventure movies, and the comics that were the source material (Note, the funeral in the movie is being held for a Mr. Gains. As in, William M. Gaines, publisher of Tales From The Crypt and Mad Magazine. Hero of humanity.) are updated to be more contemporary. There’s more gore, tits and irony. What was the old made new is now the old made a different kind of old. A look back at a look back.
Importantly, this is a movie that is intended to be pulpish, but it doesn’t go out of its way to be intentionally bad or stupid. You’re supposed to enjoy it, more than enjoy being above it. If you have a problem with that, in the words of the sexy vampire, “first I’m gonna rip your dick off, then I’m gonna grind your balls into guacamole.”
The Mummy (1932)
Even more of a look back at even more of a look back, is 1932’s The Mummy, with Boris Karloff. The characters in The Mummy are, of course, looking back on a past era themselves. “forty-two hundred years ago,” says one character, marveling at the passage of time. I thought that, before too long, this movie will be 100 years old and there won’t be anybody left who remembers seeing its initial release. I thought about how cinema gives us a clearer window into the past than was available to the people who examine the past in The Mummy.If all goes well, one day people will be able to watch movies and video of ancient times, from the late 19th century onward.
One of the more interesting moments of The Mummy comes when a flashback tells us a story from ancient Egypt using the techniques and language of the silent film era, as Karloff narrates. It’s the same principle filmmakers now use when depicting the past with black and white film or grainy home video footage. It was kind of creepy how the stars spoke casually, almost dismissively, of the tombs and dead people in ancient Egypt, so long ago as to scarcely be real, given that the actors and filmmakers now speak from mostly unvisited graves.
Is it still scary? Was it ever scary? If you let your guard down a little bit. One archeologist unknowingly wakes The Mummy, who looms behind him and it is pretty tense. As was the climax, with the girl begging for her life. We’ve made a lot of advances in being jarring, disgusting and depraved over the years. But ultimately, none of it is real. You don’t actually mistake what is happening on the screen for real events. It’s the ideas we find unsettling.
So you can get caught up in the language of a film like this and laugh it off, in the same way a Scottish person talking about some horrible crime might make part of you want to laugh because it’s all being conveyed with a silly accent. And, of course, it seems goofy when ancient Egyptians in a flashback carry themselves like Americans from 1932. But there’s no more reason to think they’d act like Americans from 2013, it would just be less noticible. If you don’t get caught up in the film’s accent and just take in the story and the ideas, it’s… well, not horrifying, but spooky. Especially the account of Karloff’s character being mummified while still alive.
Think of the film in the correct context: one or two steps removed from a stage production, and you can see its quality. Some of the images remain powerful regardless of context. Karloff is meticulously made up to resemble a great notion of an undead mummy. I don’t think his appearance could be improved upon. The mummy’s emergence is a huge moment for the film. The mummy shot. Without computers or explosions or gore effects to fall back on, this was the main attraction, so the make up and his performance had to be perfect and they were. Similarly, there’s a fetishism for physical objects, like scrolls. The mere presentation of them is meant to hold interest and it does. These artifacts could be the stars of a scene, the focus of the actors. You see that later in, say, Indiana Jones movies and it still works.
To my surprise, Karloff is only briefly depicted as a bound up mummy. Most of the time, he’s just an intensely creepy and powerful mystic who only the audience knows to be undead. He manipulates the British archaeologists who foolishly roll into his hood, works his magic to seduce a half Egyptian woman from their midst and he smites those who oppose him. He represents the horrors of the past, that we think of as being apart from our reality. Mostly we think of death, suffering and dire fear as existing far away from us. But one day, they’ll be looking back at our time. Our deaths will be trivial and maybe laughable, no matter how horrible they were to us. We’ll scarcely seem real. We’ll be dragged down to the realm of The Mummy and the fragments we leave behind will whisper to the living, “don’t forget, you’re next.”