Back at Comic-Con, we saw Cooties, the comedy horror movie set for a limited release in theaters and on-demand on September 18th. And it is a movie that rolls around in its genre’s tropes and gleefully splatters the audience with jokes and blood. It turns out that slaughtering children is amazingly fun.
Cooties deals with the outbreak of a disease that turns children into feral monsters. In this case, the source is a bad chicken nugget served at an elementary school where Clint Hadsen (Elijah Wood) is acting as a substitute teacher. When the kids — anyone who’s gone through puberty is immune — start attacking, Hadsen and the few other surviving teachers have to figure out a way to get to safety.
Cooties is at its best when it’s exaggerating the usual movie tropes. Kids covered in blood, the line “When you come across your fifth disemboweled body it kind of loses it’s punch,” phone lines being ripped out for no good reason, and the stereotypes of all the teachers. Hadsen the aspiring writer, the plucky love interest, her jerk jock of a boyfriend, a right-wing lunatic science teacher, a stoner in a van, the one tasked with the science exposition, and Jack McBrayer as every character he’s ever played.
Hadsen is an aspiring writer (of course he is) who forces everyone to read his awful horror novel about an evil boat. Wood is so smarmy that rooting for him almost feels wrong. Alison Pill is Lucy McCormick, the requisite sunshiny optimist who is determined to put a positive spin on being hunted by her own students. The moment she loses all control over her bubbly personality and screams a profanity-laden speech at the lunatics she’s stuck with is a showstopper. Pill plays Lucy as someone holding on to her facade by her fingertips, and her loss of control is both entirely believable and hilarious.
Rainn Wilson is perfectly fine as P.E. teacher Wade Johnson, while Jorge Garcia is entirely disposable as the stoner crossing guard Rick. That’s not Garcia’s fault as much as the script’s, since Rick isn’t with the rest of the group. Every scene with him drains the film of momentum.
The movie’s very fun, but it hits endlessly quotable status with two smaller parts: Nasim Pedrad as Rebekkah Halverson and Leigh Whannell (who also co-wtote Cooties) as Doug. Pedrad delivers a number of truly ridiculous lines with a demented commitment that was funny every single time. In particular, we see her deliver a monologue on why evolution is less likely than intelligent design that ends with a screed against the state government that is beautifully written and performed.
Whannell is a true revelation as Doug. We meet Doug reading a book called “How to Have a Normal Conversation” and he only gets weirder. Every disease-based horror story has to have a doctor/scientist to explain what’s happening. The joy of Doug is that the explanation the movie gives for why an elementary school teacher is capable of performing an on-the-spot autopsies and fabricate vaccines is entirely inadequate. He just knows stuff because he’s strange. Plus, he has one of the best lines in the movie when he asks a young girl if she’s had “menses” yet, followed by “I gave you an ‘A’ in sex ed, I’m disappointed you don’t know what menses are,” while feral zombie children pound on the doors outside.
When the movie falls flat it’s because it tries to make a point about how kids today are wasting their potential — with their prescriptions and their cell phones and their helicopter parents. Or how under-appreciated teachers are. It’s not quite over-the-top enough to be parody or subtle enough to be effective. There’s also an unnecessary resurrection of a character and one too many endings. The new ending (changed after the film was acquired by Lionsgate at Sundance last year) feels tacked on, and resurrects a character from a previously awesome death. It’s unfortunate, since the movie’s energy was wonderful right up until it begins its second climax.
Cooties is funnier than it is scary, of course. But the kid actors and the adult actors look like they’re having a blast, and it takes the audience right along with it. It’s fun, funny, and gleefully absurd.
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