Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: Cooties

by Patrick Bromley
Don't trust anyone under 12.

For a movie with such an inspired premise and a great cast, Cooties is just decent. Directed by the team of Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion with a screenplay by Ian Brennan (co-creator of Glee) and Leigh Whannell (the man responsible for both the Saw and Insidious franchises), Cooties is the kind of horror movie that can only be made by people that love horror movies, mashing up a number of disparate subgenres in a way that actually manages to feel organic: it's part broad horror comedy, part zombie movie, part killer kid movie. I sometimes found myself wishing it was a better version of any of those three things, but I give them points for trying.
Things begin well enough. Elijah Wood plays Clint, a would-be horror novelist (and a pretty bad one, we're made to believe) who has moved from New York back home to suburban Chicago and is substitute teaching elementary school kids for the summer. There a number of other faculty there for the summer as well: alpha male P.E. teacher Wade Johnson (Rainn Wilson), his sweet girlfriend Lucy (Allison Pill), nerdy science teacher Doug (Whannell), plus Jack McBrayer in the Jack McBrayer role and Nasim Pedrad as the teacher who hates kids and is angry that she's not allowed to teach Creation. It's just an average day until one of the girls gets sick and bites one of her classmates; before you can say "wash your hands" a zombie outbreak has taken over almost the entire population of schoolchildren, leaving the faculty to fend for themselves. Some fare better than others.

All the opening stuff works well, with the screenplay by Whannell and Brennan getting a lot of things right about the social dynamics inside the teachers lounge and and its critique of modern kids feels spot on (my favorite gag is that the kid who's the biggest douche is named "Patriot," which is not a knock on America but on parents who give their kids terrible names). The early zombie stuff plays into the teacher/student dynamic and feelings of dread many teachers feel towards young people, though that eventually is dropped and the characters might as well be any random group of adults trying to survive an undead threat.

Every new actor that shows up is another welcome face even when not all of the performances work; Rainn Wilson drops in and out of a Southern accent and goes cartoonishly buffoonish at times -- a running gag about his inability to pronounce a couple words is one of the film's weakest jokes -- and Jorge Garcia is given nothing to do but pretend to be stoned and give play by play a couple times. Still, this is a strong assembly of mostly comic actors and each of them delivers the goods when necessary, particularly screenwriters Whannell and Brennan in supporting roles, as both dial into a specific wavelength of weirdness of which the movie would use more. If nothing else, Cooties manages to come up with an original twist on the zombie film, a subgenre of horror that has been done to undeath in the last five or six years.
The very idea of setting a zombie movie in an elementary school is ballsy, as it automatically means that at some point the filmmakers are going to have to show a bunch of kids being killed. To Cooties' credit, that material never crosses over into tastelessness. And, yet, maybe that's what's missing -- the movie never seems totally willing to double down on its own lunatic premise and instead plays it safe too much of the time (minus a few choice moments, which you'll recognize when you see them). We've seen movies in which adults fight back against killer kids before, but very few in a comic context where the outrageousness of what is shown on screen matches the outrageousness of the taboos being exploded. Cooties had the opportunity to make its transgressiveness its biggest joke. The opportunity goes unexplored.

The decision to stay away from getting really nasty makes Cooties a fun film but more ephemeral than it would seem on paper. The premise suggests something that has to be seen to be believed, but the execution never reaches that rarified air. Aside from a couple of gore gags (few of which are particularly well staged) and some language, this has more of a fun, upbeat PG-13 vibe -- it's more Arachnophobia than Shaun of the Dead. It's clear that directors Murnion and Milott are using Gremlins as a reference point; there's even a direct homage in the third act (pay attention to the movie theater marquee). It makes for an interesting tonal companion, as treating zombified children like gremlins makes any violence against them easier to accept but also divorces the viewer from the fact that they are, in fact, children. By trying to make the hook of the movie palatable, the filmmakers end up shying away from what is really going on.
Cooties was made through Wood's company SpectreVision, the horror-centric production company also responsible for Open Windows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Cooties has a lot in common with those two movies, actually, in that it offers a lot of stuff that's good or interesting without being totally successful. It's the best of the three, though, as well as being the most entertaining and the most commercial. It's an easy movie to watch and an easy movie to enjoy but a difficult movie to love. Even if I wanted to commit, it doesn't seem like Cooties does.

Cooties is currently playing in limited release and is available on VOD and iTunes.


  1. Was it just me or did you think that Elijah Wood was terrible in this? I couldn't get into the film at all. A lot of it has to do with my well documented troubles with the genre of Horror Comedy films but I also thought it was just really bad. None of the jokes worked for me especially that ongoing gag about the wheels on his truck. They thought that was so funny they used it three times! Also, the main bad kid cut the power to the building, so how was the vending machine still on? Are snacks that important they have it hooked up to a generator?!

    1. Your right Chaybee, the Wheels on the truck gag wasent even funny first time

      I like your thoughts Patrick, the premise of using the children was its greatest trick but yet the film was ashamed , embarrassed or just too scared to actually fully go there! they could of been really scared of a backlash, I was excited about this film and I like the cover, kind of similar to Beware Children at play, 1989, I do like Elijah is a horror fan and I thought Maniac could of been a lot worse, I wonder if an unrated version may ever appear where they actually fulfil the premise?
      im not saying I want to see kids getting killed, ooopss, maybe I am? oh dear...

  2. It was just a dumb stupid fun little movie, I found nothing to get too excited about, I did find it entertaining thou an I am just glad it wasn't to long thou cause I could have got real bored fast but it had just enough in it to keep me interested for 90 mins.

  3. This was a very disappointing film. Its insistence on pulling punches when it had a chance to shock meant I was drawn more towards its dramatic elements, but unfortunately the film pulled its punches there too. I thought Wilson's character and the love triangle were a fascinating subplot but instead of exploring it fully the film just sort of waffled about, threw its hands in the air and ended without any resolution.

  4. Seriously, have you tried saying Duel Rear Wheel? It's fuckin impossible! Dead on with the review. I thought the beginning was pretty good then it got old quick. It's aiiiight dough. It's my new catch phrase. Do you like it? No? You're right...never mind. Wait...forget it.