It's been a long time since the week after Labor Day was the customary beginning of the school year in most districts, but it still seemed like the best time for a "Back to School" horror film. Of which, shockingly, there are virtually none, despite it seeming like a patently obvious setting for a slasher movie. Still, I soldier on with the closest thing I could find, because it's already been two months since the last one of these, and I didn't want to go all the way from Independence Day to Halloween without a single entry in the series.

Taking into account the year of release (1998), the studio responsible (Miramax's Dimension Films arm), the screenwriter (Kevin Williamson), and several of the names in the cast (including Jordanna Brewster, Salma Hayek, pop star Usher, and fucking Josh Hartnett, for starters), and it's pretty easy to guess what kind of movie The Faculty is. And thereby to be completely wrong, for against all the odds, The Faculty is not at all one of the legions of shiny, tediously self-conscious teen slasher movies that started popping up all over in the wake of the Williamson-scripted Scream in 1996; instead it is a playfully self-conscious high-school riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers - a book and movie that is name-dropped much too often - that isn't even superficially beholden to the body count movie rules that plagued contemporaneous piece-of-shit horror pictures like Urban Legend or Williamson's I Know What You Did Last Summer. So exciting, in fact, is it to have one's expectations thus happily thwarted, it's almost too easy to over-value The Faculty, for while it is a zesty, charming sci-fi horror-thriller with better performances and far better production values than you'd expect based solely on the extraneous culture around it, there are still some pretty nasty issues that keep it from being more than just an entertaining lark; the complete and total lack of a point other than being just a lark, for one.

Calling it a "riff" on Body Snatchers is, if anything, not strong enough: for the first two-thirds of the movie or better, it's virtually nothing besides the exact plot of Body Snatchers populated by the same cluster of generic teen characters who've inhabited every single teen movie since John Hughes codified them in The Breakfast Club. After a pretty nifty but oddly out-of-place opening scene - about which, more anon - we're introduced to our core group through the extreme gesture of freeze-frames with the character names splashed up in jagged red letters, a look-at-me gimmick that feels a little bit out of place and yet is among the most characteristic things done by director Robert Rodriguez, who otherwise gets little opportunity to play with the cartoons-by-way-of-'70s-martial-arts aesthetic that dominates his movies. These are, in order, Casey (Elijah Wood), the nerd; Stokely (Clea DuVall), the antisocial outcast; Delilah (Jordana Brewster), the shallow cheerleader; Stan (Shawn Hatosy), soon to be ex-quarterback and thus ex-boyfriend to Delilah; Marybeth Louise Hutchinson (Laura Harris), the new girl from Atlanta, and the one of the six who doesn't fit in to the Breakfast Club five-character model; and Zeke (Josh Hartnett), the bad-boy who'd rather use his considerable brain power to make and sell homebrew drugs than graduate, which is why he's repeating senior year. It's the first week of a new school year, and things seem even more unpleasant than when the last year ended; the faculty at Herrington High is acting strangely, like more exaggerated versions of themselves, nothing you can put your finger on it, but it's all wrong.

The viewer knows more than the teens do; for we saw the opening, in which extravagantly mean football coach Joe Willis (Robert Patrick) was stalked and attacked by a Something; later that same night, after ruining the entire staff's school year by announcing that the entire budget has been earmarked for football, at the express demand of the money-hungry board, Principal Drake (Bebe Neuwirth) is chased by a very zombieish Willis, before being stabbed to death - or is she? - by faculty member Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie). And when Drake shows up the next day, conspicuously missing any gaping wounds, she too has a certain mix of dead-eyed flatness and edgy intensity that seems more like an attempt at behaving human than actual human behavior.

By this point, you should be able to put the rest together yourself: Casey discovers a heretofore unknown species that thrives in water, can replicate itself like nobody's business, and sports especially wicked teeth, a fact learned accidentally by science teacher Mr. Furlong (Jon Stewart), who becomes the next faculty member to join the alien cult - because duh, that's what's happening - and so it is that by the end of the second day of school, as near as we can tell, the faculty is calling in groups of students to transform them into drones as well, and the only people who know enough to fight back are our little band of six, united by nothing more than the accidental chain of events that put them all in a position to see through this clever extraterrestrial plot. Luckier still, they learn just as much by accident that Zeke's homebrew drug of choice, "Scat", is deadly to the alien parasites - and to the human host as well, but it's Stokely's belief that if they can kill the alien queen, all of the human drones will be restored to their original state, which gives the kids something to fight against, at least.

Derivative as hell? Yes, undoubtedly, though as with Scream, the fact that it trumpets how derivative it is redeems it somewhat (and unlike Scream, the fact that it does not thereafter act like it's better than its own genre means that this redemption takes hold). And the little shifts made to the basic Body Snatchers template are all, for the most part, effective; particularly the way it gleefully attaches itself to the '90s indie teen scene by turning into, for all intents and purposes, a pro-drug message picture. The characters are all reasonably well-etched despite being obvious clichés - even the wrinkles that the screenplay throws in to make them less clichéd are, themselves, clichés (the smart jock? the braniac drug-dealer? such startling, brave characters these be!) - and the way that the film marries late-'90 high school sociology with the requirements of its genre are fun and reasonably intelligent; it is perhaps the case that the best part of the writing has more to do with David Wechter & Bruce Kimmel's story than with Williamson's script, which is bogged down with the kind of arch and annoyingly clever over-written dialogue that haunts most of his writing. But even this does not derail The Faculty as much as it might have.

The thing that probably saves the movie the most is Rodriguez's directing; though it is clearly a minor film in his canon, and the energy of second-tier pictures such as From Dusk Till Dawn and Machete is largely absent, to say nothing of the sheer filmmaking joy of a Desperado. The anarchy is missing, and while The Faculty comes by its R rating honestly, the hypnotised love of visually poetic explosions of blood that defines nearly all of the director's best work is largely missing as well. But it is still a tightly-constructed thriller, doling out just the right amount of information that we need to be just far enough ahead of the characters to make things interesting, without giving up potential shocks (there were not one, but two characters whose eventual alien implantation caught me by complete surprise). And this, of course, has more to do with the writing than the directing, but the way Rodriguez constructs scenes still creates the best possible environment for that writing, brilliantly controlling our relationship to character POV, and cutting around the messy action with enthusiastic verve that is perhaps more "cool" than anything else; but when isn't that true of his filmmaking.

There are a few terrific performances (Laurie's icy stare of alien drone menace is pitch-perfect, and Famke Janssen's oscillation from overgrown dweeb to sexual predator is, legitimately, some of the best work she's ever done), but not a single actor is truly flat, not even my longtime nemesis, Josh Hartnett - though this was before I knew enough about who he was to even call him my nemesis - and those performances which do seem a bit off turn out to be foreshadowing more than anything else (there's a lot of foreshadowing here: I'm particularly charmed by the way that the only character who doesn't fit the Breakfast Club paradigm turns out to be the alien queen). It's a solid thriller all around, with just enough splashes of horror imagery to be intense, and just enough wit in the screenwriting and the performance to not feel like a guilty pleasure.

That said, there's not really depthy to any of this, other than an exercise in mechanical storytelling: unlike The Body Snatchers in all its iterations, there's not any social point being made. The film gestures in the direction of commentary from time to time - never moreso than in the opening sequence, where the teachers and principal all grouse about how frustrating it is that sports have so completely trumped academics in the land of academic funding; but similar, smaller examples crop up in terms of most of the inter-character relationships - but never picks the commentary up and runs with it; as if, having pointed out something (too much emphasis on high school sports makes real learning difficult; even when we're aware of the artifice of social roles, it's hard to break out of them), that idea needn't be developed in any meaningful way. The characters are likable enough that it's not a problem to spend 100 minutes in their company, but not so likable that we're hugely invested in their fates.

And I have to give the movie real shit about its ending: pulling a happy twist out of a dark scenario is fine and all, but the way that The Faculty plunges for the most warm and fuzzy, nothing bad has actually happened conclusion is galling; it's almost as irritating as the immeasurably forced happy ending to the 2005 War of the Worlds, only it gets there by violating its source material, instead of helplessly riding along with a pre-ordained happy ending. Insofar as the movie ever has stakes - and it has some, there are characters whose deaths would have made me feel something like a feeling - the ending throws all of those stakes away.

Still, the movie is enough sudsy fun while it goes on that the flaws simply don't seem like that big of a deal. We still get the genre riff, and the playful acting from kids and over-qualified character actors as the faculty alike, and Rodriguez's fast-paced, energetic directing. The Faculty has largely vanished in the decade and a half since its low-key theatrical release, and it is not a lost classic; but it is definitely a better time-waster than its almost total disappearance as anything but a self-mocking punchline that Jon Stewart occasionally pulls out. It's probably too invested in its own charms to really land as a thriller or horror movie, but at least those charms are genuinely appealing, and that, ultimately is what counts.

Body Count: 4, though if we count characters who ought to die but don't, that number at least doubles. And I'm counting a character who shows up as "not-dead" as an end-credits gag as officially dead, because the gag in question seems firmly non-diegetic to these eyes.