Starring Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, and Leigh Whannell
Directed by Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott
The disappearance of the Leigh Whannell-penned Cooties from the festival circuit following its Sundance premiere in 2014 drew the ire of many. After Lionsgate snagged the distribution rights, its original late-2014 release date was pushed back almost a year so it could undergo a series of re-shoots, allegedly to fix complaints the film’s ending had garnered. Having not been privy to the Sundance cut, this review will focus on the film’s “new” premiere at the Stanley Film Festival, which was undoubtedly one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a theater in a long while.
Co-written with “Glee” creator Ian Brennan and directed by Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, Cooties opens with a catchy yet sinister ditty, courtesy of Belgian composer Pepijn Caudron, set to a stylish slaughter of chickens in a plant that creates the chicken nuggets for the local elementary school. Knowing the catalyst for the forthcoming carnage, we’re introduced to Clint Hadson (Wood), an aspiring novelist seemingly forced to serve as a substitute teacher at his old elementary school. Upon his arrival he meets a motley crew of characters, including Lucy McCormick (Pill), a former classmate of Clinton’s on whom he has a long-standing crush. This is a source of concern for Wade (Wilson), the school’s gym teacher who happens to be in a relationship with the sweet and good-natured Lucy.
This, of course, provides for a little emotional drama throughout the chaos that ensues after an infected student in Clinton’s class bites a chunk out of a classmate’s cheek, leading to every child in the school becoming wild, feral, and excessively violent monsters. After dispatching the acting principal (Ian Brennan) in an appropriately gruesome fashion, the unlikely group, joined by the slightly weird Doug (Whannell), the overly conservative Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad), and the in-the-closet-but-everyone-knows Tracy (Jack McBrayer), must find a way out of the school, lest they get torn limb from limb. Summer school is Hell.
This collection of stereotypes works thanks to Whannell and Brennan’s whip smart vulgar script and characters. Archetypes are subverted and realized as more than just coffin fodder at the hands of bloodthirsty children. As the lead, Wood’s aspiring writer is insufferable in his quest for praise, going as far as having the children in his class read from his manuscript to provide him feedback. Rounding out the “love triangle” through line are Wilson and Pill, whose polar opposite characters play into the “why is she with him?” aspect without burdening the film with a forced sense of emotional gravitas. The differences between Wood and Wilson, both in terms of their size and the characters they play, allow for some of the best lines in the film, including one Hobbit reference that was met with uproarious laughter from the audience.
Despite those three driving the internal conflict, it’s Whannell’s Doug who provides some of the best one-liners and funniest moments amidst the carnage. Awkward, a little quirky, and not above dissecting a student’s brain for the sake of science, Whannell makes it clear that he’s got the chops to not only turn out a consistently funny performance but also serve as the backbone for the type of humor that prevents Cooties from becoming just another throwaway horror comedy. Even those not entirely central to the emotional crux of the film, such as McBrayer and Pedrad, are realized and funny enough to the point to help keep the film from devolving into a gorefest with forgettable characters.
Unlike most horror comedies, the humor is pervasive throughout. The tendency to relegate the humor to the back seat as the film progresses is certainly seen here, but in a far less egregious way. The gore is prevalent early on and never truly lets up, but even when the situation becomes more dire and therefore more serious, the humor and witty repartee continue to flow, albeit with slightly less frequency. This shouldn’t be seen as a fault of the filmmakers, however, but rather one intrinsic to the sub-genre itself; it’s hard to keep the one-liners consistent when a swarming mass of ankle-biters is trying to rip your guts out and the humor of discovery is replaced by the necessity for survival.
Cooties is fully aware of the type of film it wants to be – and should be – so it makes no attempt to dumb things down or take a more palatable approach to the subject of kids killing and being killed in hilariously gruesome ways. Whannell and Brennan tossed in a little bit of commentary on the over-medication of our kids and their obsession with technology to add a modicum of depth to a film that could have remained just as good without it. Through it all, Murnion and Milott revel in its absurdity without compromise and never lose sight of what makes Cooties such a fun ride and one of the best horror comedies in recent memory.