Cooties – a who’s-who of familiar and likable actors penned by Leigh Whannell (Saw, Insidious) and Ian Brennan, is a wacky and irreverent horror/comedy aiming to please horror aficionados and gorehounds alike. Unfortunately, the result is a film that largely feels infected by its own virulent cliched tropes, despite its varied and talented cast and promising premise.
Welcome to Ft. Chicken, Illinois: home of tasty nuggets, and a variety of poultry delicacies. All of which are supplied to the local elementary school where our hero Clint (Elijah Wood) is about to spend his first day as a substitute teacher. He’s freshly home from New York, and while coming back home from is less than idyllic – his prospects for pursuing his writing career had been better in the Big City (or so he thinks) – things could certainly be worse. Much, much worse.
His first day of teaching brings him in contact with the school’s idiosyncratic cast of characters, which includes Rick the crossing guard (Jorge Garcia), Clint’s old crush Lucy (Alison Pill), her new boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), as well as uptight Nasim Pedrad (SNL) as Rebekkah. Oh, and let’s not forget Jack McBrayer as – you guessed it – a closeted gay teacher. Scribes Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell appear in the film as well, with Whannell in a larger supporting role as socially awkward Doug while Brennan plays the school’s principal.
With all this in place we’re now free to move onto the fun stuff. One of the students consumes a tainted chicken nugget and all hell breaks loose! If children weren’t a handful to begin with, they’ve now become mindless virus infected cannibalistic zombies! The explanation offered by Doug is that of the proverbial schoolyard ailment: they’ve got the cooties. But Cooties (the movie, that is) takes it to an entirely new extreme, a tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale for the pre-pubescent hypochondriac trying to avoid the dreaded infection.
Symptoms include decaying and splintering chunks of skin as well as an insatiable taste for flesh, as well as the propensity to scratch people at random – there’s a slow motion scratch-athon by one of the affected children in the schoolyard. Most of the film takes place at the elementary school as the ragtag group try to find a way out whilst avoiding the drove of carnivorous children, all the while a jealous Wade reluctantly accepts Clint as their de facto leader.
At times Cooties appears desperate to impress its audience, but the film works best when it stops trying too hard to be funny. Some of the jokes are hit-or-miss and others barely muster a chuckle. It’s baffling why the film appears to try and act as the most popular kid in class when its clearly the geeky outsider, especially with such an outlandish plot and gimmick that could easily stand on its own. If you can’t make tainted chicken nuggets and zombie children work, you’ve got issues.
When Cooties isn’t struggling with its comedy it feels gratuitously in bad taste. Not everyone can pull of killing children, even in a “fun” and light way, and the film tries to gloss over the death of zombified children. The setup is a bit reminiscent of the more brutal Troma film Beware: Children at Play – gold stars for anyone who knows what I’m talking about – but distasteful all the same. Where Troma’s film had the benefit of being, well, a Troma film (if you can call that an actual benefit) Cooties is filled with actual Hollywood talent that we expect more from.
One can’t avoid comparing this film to the wildly funny and entertaining Shaun of the Dead, a superior film that fluidly mixed both homage and parody in a non-self conscious way with an actual plot. Cooties, on the other hand, appears desperate to remind you how clever it is and never feels as down-to-earth fun as it could have been, despite having Rainn Wilson and the charming Alison Pill in funny roles.
Despite my reservations, there is still some fun and cleverness in Cooties, but much of this goes to waste as lame jokes and its characters remain mired in stupidity. Maybe future viewings will change this, as all the ingredients for a cult-classic are here: crazy plot, gore, and outlandish comedy. Oh, and chicken nuggets and zombie children.