It never came as a surprise to me that I was greatly enjoying a movie in which elementary school children were turned into flesh-eating zombies, and then routinely hacked to pieces by their dysfunctional faculty. That is probably the greatest strength of Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s film, Cooties. It successfully straddles the line between what we will and won’t accept when it comes to an absurdist horror-comedy. Here, catharsis is the relevant currency and the audience is all the better for it, despite a severely dragging mid-section and scares that don’t match up to the laughs.
Elijah Wood (who also produces*) stars as Clint, a maybe-writer who has moved back to his hometown from New York to do some substitute teaching at Ft. Chicken Elementary School. Clint goes to his first day of classes, book manuscript firmly in hand, and discovers that the kids are awful, his childhood crush and fellow teacher, Lucy (Alison Pill), is dating alpha-male gym teacher, Wade (Rainn Wilson) and the chicken nuggets have begun to transform these students into ravenous zombies.
The plot mildly twists and turns but the movie gets almost all of its mileage from the conceit that the children have turned into monsters and the teachers must fight back. I was impressed at the brisk pace of the first act and a half; jokes and gore coming at nearly breakneck pace and characters that are clearly established with very little effort and screen time. The script by Ian Brennan (GLEE) and Leigh Whannell (SAW) is slick and wry when delivering each punch. Whannell also pulls double duty here, acting as socially inept and likely future serial killer, Doug.
Whannell is the notable scene-stealer but each cast member gets their chance to out-weird the other with Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia (though he’s eventually relegated to a less successful side-movie of his own) and Peter Kwong as the school’s heroic, Samurai-esque janitor rounding out the ensemble.
Wood’s performance, in particular, is notable for imbuing a character that is narcissistic and irritating with a shred of sympathy. His seemingly ageless face and big blue eyes do work with small glances that others couldn’t do with pages of dialogue.
For all that the cast and writers do right, they also can’t quite stick the other half of their genre’s promise: horror. The second act of the film tries to up the tension, the undead kids closing in on the janitor’s office where our faculty has taken refuge. Directing team Miliott and Murnion are great at playing fast and loose with the script and performances, but struggle when things need to be reigned in. The film’s horror bits work best when Cooties is being ghoulish and gross, often garnering a laugh at the same time as a cringe. A set piece involving the collection of candy for an uninfected, diabetic child is aimless and, due to the film’s established stakes and tone, bereft of drama.
Thankfully, the movie is able to right the ship and hurtles toward a finale that is big and weird and messed up in the best of ways (which, according to producers Wood and Josh C. Waller, apparently isn’t the ending that was seen when the film premiered at Sundance this year, after which the producers were given more funding to film a more cinematic, fun sequence). At the end, I was actually doubled-over, cackling with laughter.
Cooties presents enough vicious laughs and gore that it overcomes a sluggish middle-third and the sidelining of certain characters to become a more-than-solid entry in the horror-comedy genre. The mileage you get out of the film depends on your acceptance of heightened situations and ridiculous moments, but I’d say if you choose to watch an R-rated move called Cooties, you’re well aware of what you’re in for.
Cooties was released simultaneously in limited theaters and VOD on September, 18.
* In a Q&A that followed the screening of the film, Wood noted that he wasn’t planning to play a part in the film at all, and wanted to serve solely as a producer through his company, SpectreVision, which has grown to be a very bright spot in his career. The iconic actor from The Lord of the Rings trilogy will never shed that fame, but has found a very interesting chunk of the industry where he can showcase what speaks to him and co-founder Waller. Wood, in person, and through the films his company produces, comes across as such a Superfan for genre cinema that it simply adds to his allure as a geek culture cornerstone.